spending transparency

If It's Good Enough For New Jersey, Shouldn't It Be Good Enough For Virginia?

Every legislative session we make open government, transparency and spending reform major issues on our legislative agenda. In 2009, after years of trying, we were successful in helping guide the passage of a online spending transparency bill into law. While it did not put an online a search mechanism as straightforward and simple to use as those put into online in Nebraska or Missouri, it was a significant step forward. Since then, we have advocated for transparency on the budgeting side of the issue, as opposed to after-the-fact spending transparency. While it is great for citizen watchdogs to have the ability to investigate how much and with whom the commonwealth spends our money, it would be better to see where our lawmakers are appropriating it before it gets that far, in order to stop the wasteful spending before it becomes law. That's why we've supported bills to flag down earmarks in the appropriations process, to require a 48-hour or 72-hour reading period before the budget is voted on, to require agency budget prioritization, to spotlight new major spending priorities and for zero-based budgeting.

Not only would each of these reforms help taxpayers learn where there money is going, as well as reduce wasteful spending (and keep overall spending under control), it would help lawmakers — ostensibly. One would think, anyway. After all, it's pretty hard to keep up with 80-plus billion dollars over a two-year budget when you're a part-time legislator, even if you are a Prince of the Highbacks. But each of these bills died silently in General Assembly money committees, including five unanimously in sub-committee in the Republican controlled House.

The reason given was pretty simple and seemingly on the up and up: The House and Senate leadership of both parties and  both chambers made a fairly well publicized "we're all getting along" declaration prior to the legislative session's start that many of the transparency principles would be adhered to in a gentleman's agreement, while the budget prioritization stuff was coming from the executive branch with its new $15 million "performance based budgeting" software. Easy to say then, with fresh-off-elections, beginning-of-session-optimism reigning supreme. Not as easy to do without a budget. Or even a process.

That all as prelude, or even an aside, to the news today, about another reason transparency is important: corruption. It turns out that an unprecedented — in size and scope — 18-month investigation of state corruption safeguards ranked Virginia — Yes, Virginia — sweet, innocent, stately Virginia, as the 47th ranked state for anti-corruption laws and regulations (see report here). We received a big, fat, F. Kind of puts a new spin on that "Best Managed State" stuff, doesn't? Said Randy Barrett, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, one of the sponsoring organizations of the State Integrity Investigation (see The Daily Press):

The bottom line is that Virginia did really poorly in nine of the 14 categories. The areas where Virginia did well were in procurement and internal auditing and it did fair or OK in redistricting, and civil service management did pretty well. The rest of it was pretty weak. 

What constitutes "the rest of it"? Take a guess: access to information, campaign finance, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, budgeting and ethics enforcement, among others. "Follow the money" isn't a cliche. It certainly follows that if the money is spent in the light of day, there will be less temptation (former Delegate Phil Hamilton, for example). One year, when the spending transparency bill was defeated in a Senate committee, then-Senator Edd Houck infamously bellowed out that the whole idea of the bill implied that General Assembly appropriators were doing something "in the dark" and evil, and they couldn't spend the money for an online transparency program because they were trying to "educate the children." (Seriously.)

Perhaps the most ignominy about this study is that New Jersey was ranked first (see Reuters and Real Clear Politics). New Jersey, where an elected is arrested ever other week, has stronger anti-corruption laws than Virginia (which is probably why New Jersey officials regularly are arrested.)

Then there are those fiscal conservatives went after their social conservative colleagues this session, complaining that "social issues" distracted our representatives from doing "real" work. But there was plenty of fiscally conservative spending reform bills far removed from "distracting" debates in other areas. Oh, for those halcyon days of early January when handshake deals were transparent for media consumption. All of which begged the question: If it's good enough for a handshake deal, why isn't it good enough for a law? Put another way, if it's good enough for New Jersey, isn't it good enough for Virginia?

Today,  the sun shines only on New Jersey. New Jersey!

Virginia News Stand: April 17, 2009

Welcome to the end of the week. But the news is only beginning. Leading off, we have a Virginia-based pro-life organization, Life & Liberty Ministries, which says it's been put on a domestic terrorist watch list by the Virginia State Police. Very curious, to say the least. Also of note, Americans For Tax Reform took notice of the work we did on spending transparency and this blog's comment on how it all played out, especially with Governor Tim Kaine's nice veto session surprise (making the bill better). We're honored such a prestigious national organization took notice and we thank them for the help it provided in the long road it took to get transparency passed and signed into law. When you read in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star how the state paid a company $40,000 just to sit by and wait, you understand why spending transparency is important.

It's not yet time for the Colonial Downs season, but the horse race known as the gubernatorial campaign is well underway and Republican Bob McDonnell is ahead by a couple of lengths and pulling further ahead — as of now. We have the poll info directly from the pollster, Rasmussen. Enjoy your reading.

News:

Virginia pro-lifers labeled 'potential terrorists' (OneNewsNow.com)

Election 2009: Virginia Governor Election — GOP's McDonnell Pulls Further Ahead in Virginia Governor's Race (RasmussenReports.com)

Poll gives McDonnell lead in hypothetical governor matchups (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Bill Clinton, Trump among McAuliffe's donors (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

McAuliffe won't take Dominion cash, but donations from executives OK(Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Candidates in governor's race casting wide nets (Norfolk Virginian-Pilot)

Moran Campaign Contributors Have Business Before Brother (Washington Post)

State paid $40,000 in fees for towing firms to stand by (Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star)

VA Transparency Gets Unexpected Veto Session Boost(FiscalAccountability.org Blog)

Del. Shannon Valentine tops in campaign funds (Lynchburg News & Advance)

Concert to benefit Blue Ridge Pregnancy Center in Lynchburg (Lynchburg News & Advance)

Delegates Defend Internet Use on the Floor (Washington Post Virginia Politics Blog)

National News:

Senate Republicans Reply to DHS 'Rightwing Extremists' Scaremongering(RedState.com)

ACLU demands schools allow access to gay Websites (Nashville Tennessean)

Update: Governor Offers Amendment To Transparency Bill

As we mentioned last night, Governor Tim Kaine has offered an amendment to HB 2285, the spending transparency bill patroned by Delegate Ben Cline. But it's not just any amendment. It's an amendment in the nature of a substitute, meaning it's a whole new bill (see here). At first read, and we stress only a first, glancing read, it seems to provide for more thorough transparency. On the other hand, VITA is involved. Here's HB 2285 as passed by the House and Senate (click here). We'll study both side by side. Please do the same. As we said from the beginning, getting spending transparency into law was never going to be easy — even for a bill that got not one dissenting vote in several committee and floor votes in both chambers. It has had more ups and downs and twists and turns than the Rebel Yell roller coaster at Kings Dominion, and we're still not there yet. But we'll keep working until we do.

BREAKING NEWS: Governor Amends Transparency Bill!

I just received an update from the Legislative Information System that Governor Tim Kaine has made recommendations to HB 2285, the House version of the spending transparency bill. It is patroned by Delegate Ben Cline. However, the system has not yet posted what those amendments are. It's hard to believe they are too substantive given the unanimous approval it and the Senate version (SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli) received. It also goes to reason that whatever these amendments are, the governor will apply them also to SB 936. We will update you when we find out.

Virginia News Stand: March 27, 2009

You aren't misreading things and I am not mistaken about the date. Things have been very busy for your ol' admin lately, and Friday I just couldn't get to around to posting the News Stand. But since the Communications Department went through all that trouble . . . might as well post it. It's good stuff, after all. For example, Terry McAuliffe is calling for bans on lobbyists' gifts to legislators and for spending transparency. Welcome to the club, T-Mac. We'll comment on that in due time. The post after this, look for today's News Stand. News:

Kaine urges expanded unemployment benefits (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Gov. Kaine backs expansion of state benefits for jobless (Norfolk Virginian-Pilot

Virginia to receive $111 million in latest round of stimulus funds (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Harrisonburg senator criticizes VDOT for wasteful spending on train service (Lynchburg News & Advance)

McDonnell kicks off gubernatorial campaign today (Norfolk Virginian-Pilot

McAuliffe proposes a ban on lobbyists' gifts (Richmond Times-Dispatch) 

In Democrats' Race for Governor, No Clear Winner Among Managers (Washington Post

Political Parties See Dramatic Decline in Fundraising (Washington Post

Texas vote on schools, evolution mixed (Richmond Times-Dispatch

Perdue: Values Net Profits (Harrisonburg Daily News-Record)

General Assembly Recap: Success On The Fly And In The Plan

It's hard to believe the 2009 General Assembly is over. It seems like it was just yesterday that we red flagged HB 1671 and SB 1094 (the "blight bills") and "created controversy," (according to the big-government types who said we shouldn't be involved). But we got the two bills amended to where they won't affect property rights. It was an improv act, to be sure, but that type of nimbleness is needed during session because rarely does anything go to plan.  We had many other important victories in both chambers and some good  legislation is on its way to the governor's desk — unlike the above, legislation we either initiated or supported from before session. Only 46 days ago these victories were mere drafts of bills on the desks of lawmakers. Through the Family Foundation's advocacy, and legislator contact from concerned citizens, many pro-family bills passed both chambers — some even with unanimous or nearly unanimous votes. But even that doesn't make it easy (see why here).

We have five core principles upon which we advocate in the legislature: Life, Marriage, Religious Liberty, Constitutional Government and Parental Authority. To put our 2009 victories in perspective, we received major victories on four priority bills reflective in five of those principles:

While we are pleased with the successes we had this year we understand that there are still many obstacles to make Virginia more family friendly, including an upcoming veto session in which we may see a veto threat against the Choose Life license plates. So, while the 2009 General Assembly is for the most part over, and we prepare for veto session, we are already working on our plans for 2010.

We thank each of you who took the time to contact your legislators during this past session. Our e-mail alert system generated nearly 25,000 e-mails to legislators this year! Your action does make a difference and, we at The Family Foundation, always are encouraged by your response. Additionally, we enjoyed bringing the General Assembly to you via video on this blog and our YouTube page. We had more unique visitors in the 28 days of February than in the 31 of January!

We also offer our humblest thanks for allowing us to represent you in the General Assembly. We take the responsibility very seriously and look forward, with your help, to continued success.

Quotes Of The Day

It all happened late this afternoon, in rapid fire succession, all starting with a blatant mis-speak by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Rockbridge) when bringing his spending transparency bill (HB 2285) to the floor. Explaining the Senate's floor amendment to the bill and why it should be "severed" (which elicited some sarcastic "oooohs"):

"I talked to the patron and he's okay with it."

Speaker Bill Howell (R-28, Stafford), to what may have been the loudest laughter in session this year:

"You are the patron!"

After Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R-8 Salem) parodied Cline to more laugher, Delegate Todd Gilbert (R-15, Woodstock) stepped up for a bill of his own:

"Mr. Speaker, I have a question of the patron. Would the patron yield?"

The House laughed louder than the original faux paux. Then Delegate Gilbert added, "I can go on. This is easy."

It's been a long "short session" and they've been on the floor for hours at a time. It's definitely time to bring down this curtain and let them go home!

Transparency Bills Breeze Through Senate And House; Not So Fast

The good news? The Senate today accepted Ken Cuccinelli's (R-37, Fairfax) floor amendment to conform HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), to his SB 936 by a unanimous vote. The House, meanwhile, unanimously approved SB 936. Sounds all so cut-and-dried, let's-send-it-to- the-third-floorish, right? That'd be too easy.

Here's what happened late this morning. As you will recall from yesterday, Senator Walter Stosch (R-12, Henrico) raised concerns that language in the floor substitute might allow for Social Security numbers to be put online. The bill was passed by for the day for the day in order to work that out. However, as the Senate discovered today, federal law safeguards such a happenstance and all were prepped to go forward.

Then stepped up Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg). Exactly what might he want? It seems he had a little bill that would bring some much needed reform to the workings of the two chambers (SB 1401). It would require that anything budget conferees stuck in their final budget report —which the two chambers must vote up or down — that was a nonstate appropriation, an item not included in either chamber's budget, or an item that represents legislation that failed during session, would have to be announced as such in letters to all 140 members by the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees.

The bill sliced right through the Senate only to be left to die in House Appropriations. So, here was an opportunity to revive it and he jumped at it. Unfortunately, his original bill had a dreaded "fiscal impact" statement attached — then said the cost was "indeterminable." (Odd, though, that no budget amendment was necessary. Besides, what's the cost of writing a letter and making 140 copies?). Still, just having it there scares some lawmakers. And us. (Would it have to go before a bill-killing re-referal to Appropriations?)

Great stuff, actually, this amendment. All about transparency. But legislative transparency. Not spending transparency. One is actual facts about state spending. One is about GA procedures. Not exactly germane. Senator Norment admitted as much on the floor, saying he thinks the House may reject his amendment on those grounds. But no one asked the chamber's presiding officer, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, for a ruling (he cannot make one unilatterally). So the amendment proceeded to a vote and accepted by the body.

Here's where it all stands: Instead of the two bills conformed exactly to each other (which we figured wouldn't happen anyway only because we thought at the outset the Senate would leave HB 2285 alone) and avoiding a conference committee, HB 2285 goes back to the House since the Senate changed it. It must either accept or reject the Senate amendments. Either way, it will be different than SB 936: If it rejects the amendments, it is slimmer than SB 936; if it accepts them, it is larger. Meanwhile, the Senate must accept or reject SB 936, since it was tweaked in the House to meet Appropriations Committee concerns. Since the changes were the patron's, it  won't be a problem. 

Many variables from this last minute twist of the tale: Now that Senator Norment is part author on HB 2285, will he be on the conference committee? If so, how might that affect the dynamics? If the House insists on its version of HB 2285, will it give the Senate an excuse to scuttle it in conference? Or will the meat of the bill survive if Senate conferees insist on the slimmer HB 2285 as a slap? Is this all paranoia? We hope so, but just covering all bases.

To repeat, never have bills that still have not received a single dissenting vote gone through so much tortuous twisting. That said, an important reform still is within reach. Updates tomorrow.

Spending Transparency: Close To Two Major Victories, Keep Contacting Lawmakers

Spending transparency is one of our priority issues this session and the bills involved (SB 936 and HB 2285) have had a long and winding path thus far (as do most major reform efforts). Just as predicted, their paths are somewhat similar to eminent domain reform bills in 2007, with many twists and turns and near-death experiences. Although each committee vote has been non-controversial, the behind the scenes efforts have been exhausting to get it to that point, with great credit going to the two patrons — Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) and Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), respectively, and their co-patrons, particularly Senator Chap Peterson (D-34, Fairfax) and Delegate Joe Bouchard (D-83, Virginia Beach). There has been tweaking of the bills to avoid the inexcusably outrageous and bogus fiscal impact statements which would have made the bills cost prohibitive to implement, especially in these tight budgetary times. (Fiscal impact statements once served a good purpose — cautionary breaks for lawmakers on new programs or government administrative expenses. Now they are used as excuses to stop much needed reforms.)

Each bill has gone through numerous committee hearings, amendments and substitutes, been reported and refered to money committees and the House version even was sent to a Senate committee the Senate version had no part of (see here). (As it turned out, HB 2285 was sent to the Rules Committeebecause the Auditor of Public Accounts comes under legislative directive, or some such governmentese, but still begs the question why SB 936 didn't go that route.)

All that said, we are closing in on major victories, but it's not time to let down our collective guard. A final push is needed from concerned citizens who believe the government has a serious obligation to shine the light on where our tax dollars are spent. 

SB 936 unanimously passed the House Science and Technology Committee only to have another obstacle thrown in its path — a trip to House Appropriations tomorrow. Committee members Bob Marshall (R-13, Prince William) and John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake) tried to avoid the referral by asking for a vote to report straight to the House floor.

However, things look positive. Committee Chairman Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg) told committee members the bill had to be referred to Appropriations to be vetted for costs, but that she would inform Appropriations Chairman Lacey Putney (I-19, Bedford) there are no costs associated with this bill. Appropriations meets tomorrow afternoon.

Indeed, Auditor of Public Accounts Walter J. Kucharski and Joe Damico, deputy director of the Department of General Services, both testified that the bill, offered in its third form, would have no fiscal impact on the state budget. Amazingly, the Department of Planning and Budget attached a fiscal impact statement to the bill claiming its original and subsequent amended versions would cost state government between $1.5-$3 million in new equipment and software, man-hours, and more employees. One small problem: no one asked the departments involved (read this about impact statements).

Earlier in the week, HB 2285 emerged with unanimous approval in the Senate Rules Sub-Committee on Studies and now is in the full Rules Committee which meets at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. 

Spending transparency is an important issue (read here) for many reasons: good government, accountability, taxpayer protection and the like (read here). It also will give us a clearer window into how often, how much and for what reasons nefarious profit making groups such as Planned Parenthood get our tax money! We are very close to victory on a major priority this session. Let's not take it for granted.

Contact Rules Committee members here (HB 2285) and Appropriations Committee members here (SB 936).

Another Hurdle For Spending Transparency

Spending transparency (SB 936) cleared another hurdle today only to have another one thrown in its path — a trip to House Appropriations (click here for contact information), this Friday. However, things look positive. It passed on a 21-0 vote and in the House Science and Technology Committee late this afternoon, but then referred to the Appropriations. Delegates Bob Marshall (R-13, Prince William) and John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake) tried to avoid the hurdle by asking for a vote to report straight to the floor. According to committee Chairman Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg), it simply is a safeguard measure — if a cost to it was discovered on the floor, the bill would die because Friday is the last Appropriations Committee meeting. Better for it to be vetted there, and amended if necessary.

However, Auditor of Public Accounts Walter J. Kucharski and Joe Damico, deputy director of the Department of General Services, both testified that the bill, offered in its third version today, would have no fiscal impact. Amazingly, the Department of Planning and Budget posted a fiscal impact statement claiming that the second version of the bill would cost these two departments and state government $1.5 million in new equipment and software, man-hours, and more employees. One small problem: no one asked the departments.  

It's no time to rest, however. SB 936 and HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), and which emerged yesterday with unanimous approval in the Senate Rules Sub-Committee on Studies and now is in the full Rules Committee (contact information here), should both be heard Friday in those committees. Contact members of both committees. We're very close to victory on a major priority this session. Let's not take it for granted.

Statement To Virginia Lawmakers On Spending Transparency: Show Us, Like They Do In Missouri!

The Institute for Transparent Government

www.cystalcleargovernment.com

February 2, 2009

Dear Virginia Lawmakers:

In July of 2007, then-Gov. Matt Blunt created the Missouri Accountability Portal (MAP) by Executive Order. Accessible at www.mapyourtaxes.mo.gov, the MAO is a searchable database of all Missouri expenditures; the MAP gives Missouri taxpayers the the ability to see how every single dollars is being spent. As of January 1, 2009, the MAP website has received over 17 million "hits." Despite sentiment that spending transparency requires a massive cost outlay, we were able to implement this comprehensive Web site, which many considered the easiest and most thorough in the country, for less than $200,000.

Missouri citizens now have access to comprehensive and searchable expenditure information, public employee salaries, and tax credit issuance data. That data is updated each state business day. In the Governor's office, we believed citizen oversight of the budgetary process to be a birthright. In spending their tax dollars, we in government had a responsibility to give the taxpayer a seat at the table by allowing them to search and scrutinize our expenditures and tax credits. In Missouri, they responded by logging onto the site in record numbers. Also, the press found the MAP site a useful tool for its efforts to write about state government.

We were able to deliver this service to the state of Missouri for far less than many may have estimated. The same will be true in Virginia with the passage of SB 936/HB 2285. The $3 million fiscal impact statement issued by the Department of Planning and Budget for SB 936 strikes me as is completely unrealistic; the entire federal budget was put online for a third of that cost.  Rather, this fiscal impact statement strikes me as bureaucrats' efforts to derail transparency.

I would encourage you to follow the lead of Missouri and over a dozen other states that have opted to bring transparency and accountability to their budgetary process by ignoring the erroneous price tag and supporting this legislation.

Sincerely, 

Edward R. Martin, Jr.

Chief of Staff to former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt

Founder, the Institute for Transparent Government (www.crystalcleargovernment.com)