Transparency Bills Breeze Through Senate And House; Not So FastFeb 25, 2009
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.