Persistence is one of the most important ingredients in the legislative process. Defeat of a bill cannot deter a lawmaker, nor even people who support the idea. Some laws languished as remains in the sausage grinder for years before they met a governor’s signature, shred to bits by designated “kill sub-committees” designed to ensure they would never see the light of day (i.e., a floor vote). But a good and just idea won’t die, at least not quietly, especially if its patron carries on the fight session after session.
One such bill, a perennial budget-making transparency bill from Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg), may earn its long overdue status as a law this year. That is, may, as in there is a potential sliver of a window crack of opportunity for SB 1129, a bill that would require some disclosure during the crafting of the state budget by the House and Senate conference committee. It passes the Senate year after year but meets its fate in a House Appropriations sub-committee. One can tell the disposition of the respective chambers toward certain bills by the committees to which they are assigned: The Senate sends this bill to Rules each year; the House to Appropriations — a committee more keen to efficiency than eyeballs.
This glimmer of hope comes from a noticeable change in the fiscal impact statement attached to the bill. Originally a terrific stab at legislative reform, fiscal impact statements were designed to show lawmakers how much a bill would cost so as to reduce the likelihood of pork barrel spending. But years ago they evolved into weapons by the bureaucrats who compile them to kill off needed reforms by placing contrived and/or vague figures on the alleged added cost the bill would incur to government.
They were used in past in attempts to scuttle property rights legislation and transparency for payments to state contractors, both of which eventually became constitutional amendments and/or statutes — and never mind that tax increase bills never have attached to them the impact they would have on families (so we did it for them on these bills as well as on this infamous proposal), while tax reduction bills must have impact statements showing the “cost” to government. A double-double standard.
The bill itself requires the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees to issue a listing with the budget that provides “a narrative description, dollar amount, and name of the member of the General Assembly who inserted” . . .
» any non-state agency appropriation (supposed to be illegal, anyway),
» any item in the conference report that was not included in a general appropriation bill as passed by either the House or the Senate, and
» any item that represents legislation that failed in either house during the regular or a special session.
Doesn’t sound like a big inconvenience, does it? Over the years, however, the impact statements made it sound as if this simple disclosure would bring the entirety of state government to a halt. From the same bill last year (SB 267) the impact statement said:
This legislation could potentially increase the workload demands on House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee staff and may require changes to existing systems to provide this information.
In other words, “time and money, and we have neither,” even though specific numbers were not provided. We didn’t know taking hand written notes of line item insertions and typing them up required new systems. But this year, the exact same bill offers this backtrack on the impact statement:
This bill would require additional work by the staff of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. The staff time would be needed to generate the reports required by the bill. Both committees staff leadership have indicated that they can absorb the extra work and any additional costs within their existing operational budgets.
Why the change of heart? Does it portend passage? In the past, the potential cost and time have been the excuse for the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities to table the bill on unrecorded voice votes. But this seems to signal the all clear from the money committee staffs, which have an influence on its members not seen in any other committee. Hopefully, we’ll find out when the same sub-committee considers the bill in the next week or two. But we’re likely to see it law before we get an explanation. Of the two, we’ll gladly take the latter.
Budget transparency is important for accountability of the budget writers by the public, for non-budget writing members to make an informed decision, as well as reigning in unnecessary spending. The more eyeballs on the budget, the less funny business. If there is no funny business, appropriators have nothing to worry about and should pass this bill, finally.