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!