zero-based budgeting

Breaking News: Two Budget Reform/Transparency Bills Up Tomorrow Morning!

The House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities released only a few hours ago its first meeting agenda — and the meeting is tomorrow morning! Why is this significant? Bills dealing with budget reform are difficult to get through the General Assembly. Here's our chance! These are the two bills: HB 1681, patroned by Republican Delegates Dickie Bell, Ben Cline and Mark Cole, that would put Virginia make Virginia budget writers appropriate on a zero-based principle. Currently, if an agency has a budget of $10 million one budget cycle, it starts off the next budget cycle at $10 million. This makes reducing government difficult. If, however, an agency must prove, via its performance, what budget it deserves, efficiencies and a smaller government can be realized.

The second bill is HB 1869, patroned by Delegate David Toscano, a Charlottesville Democrat. It would provide that the House and Senate Budget conference committee could not include in its budget, which is what both chambers vote on during each session's final day, items to a non-state agency, not introduced as legislation, nor not included in either chamber's version of the budget unless the chairmen of the money committees notify, via letter, all 140 members of the legislature and post it on the committees' Web sites. This is vital! So much of the final budget is a mystery and lawmakers only have a few hours to digest all $70 billion in the document. Last year, this bill was not even heard in committee.

This is no way to run the country's best managed state. Contact members of the sub-committee! Here is the sub-committee list with links to their contact information.

The Virginia Budget: More Reform Ideas Now

Speaking of Virginia's budget process and Governor-elect Bob McDonnell's idea to reform the process whereby the lame duck, outgoing governor proposes the next two-year budget, more is needed to be done. For one, zero-based budgeting. Even Creigh Deeds supports that. As it is now, agency budgets are based on the previous year's budget. They normally get an increase, however small (and usually not small), despite its performance (see the Department of Education). Zero-based budgeting starts from scratch each year and determines what money is needed to achieve that year's objectives. But even with zero-based budgeting some unnecessary government programs remain intact. So, instead of reducing some agency budgets, some should be merged (as the House tried to do two years ago) or, better yet, eliminated. Still, zero-based budgeting would be a nice starting point for reform. Two planks out of the McDonnell-Bolling budget and spending reform platform released in September are along these lines: agency performance audit reviews and evidence based budgeting. We hope this at least moves us toward reducing the scope of spending in Richmond, if not actually significantly limiting state government's ever expanding reach (and we haven't even touched on SOQ reform).

While the budget cycle and agency appropriation formulas are the headline grabbers, there are many needed common sense reforms. Some have been proposed form time to time in the General Assembly only to be shot down for reasons serious and not. For example, one bill last year from Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg), oddly enough, would bring more transparency and probably scare off lawmakers from voting in pork. It would have required that anything budget conferees stuck in their final budget report — which the two chambers must vote up or down — that was a non-state 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.

Another idea last year came from Senator Ralph Smith (R-22, Botetourt) which would require at least a day pause for reading the budget before it could be voted on. That, too, went nowhere fast.

Getting ourselves into a fiscal mess was pretty simple — the legislature and the executive over the years simply saying yes to every plea for help and imaginary solution that supposedly only money can provide. Getting ourselves out of it is pretty simple, too. But it's amazing how many simple, time tested ideas there are that can save taxpayer money and provide efficiency that never get anywhere (not to mention just saying "no").  

Many of these ideas have been studied or have worked elsewhere. There's no need for delay. The need is great to reform. The moment, with newly elected officials and a teetering economy, is now. Delay, for any reason, no longer is necessary. No that it ever was.

What About The Old Spending?

Sitting, Friday, through two House Appropriation sub-committees as well as the full-committee until about 6:30, when I should well have been home for a change, something hit me: It's great the Appropriations Committee is so concerned about bills that have new spending attached and rejects them. We're in a deficit, after all. In fact, it's not just this year, but the committee has a justifiably earned miserly reputation. So, you won't get too much criticism out of me for that. No new spending! Sounds like a campaign slogan. But what about the old spending? Why does that continue to rise? Where is the committee's diligence to keeping the old spending down? In short, why has the budget grown 80 percent during the last 10 years?  

We also ask, if the committee is committed to limiting the growth of government, why it blocks reforms designed to stymie the ever growing  leviathan, such as zero-based budgeting? (See HB 2356, from Delegate Todd Gilbert, here.)