Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Budget Transparency in Virginia

Three members of the Virginia General Assembly spoke today at a news conference in the State Capitol about their coming efforts to pass legislation aimed at improving the transparency of the state budget process.

State Senators Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax County) and Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Delegate Ben Cline (R-Amherst) are the co-patrons of the legislation, along with Delegate Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth). They were joined at the news conference by Kristina Rasmussen, director of government affairs at the National Taxpayers Union, which is helping promote budget transparency at the federal level and throughout the country for state and local governments.

In a press release prepared by Tertium Quids, the non-profit advocacy group that sponsored the news conference, Senator Cuccinelli said:

"Taxpayers should be able to easily access the details on how the state is spending their tax dollars and what results are achieved for those expenditures."
Delegate Cline added, according to the Tertium Quids release:
"This is nonpartisan legislation that's good for all Virginians. Every Virginian who pays taxes and fees to the government has a right to see how his or her money is being spent by public officials."
Tertium Quids noted in its news release that
"The state of Missouri has one of the better budget transparency web sites launched to date. It is found at http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov. The extremely user-friendly and informative site allows users to search by agency, category of expenses, contract, and vendor."
Earlier on Tuesday morning, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling endorsed the proposed legislation (which has not yet been assigned a bill number, but which should be dropped in the hopper tomorrow -- the first day of the legislative session -- by Petersen and Cuccinelli in the Senate and by Cline and Joannou in the House). Bolling said through Tertium Quids:
"I am pleased to lend my support to this legislation, which would require the Commonwealth to design and implement a budget website that displays a clear, detailed, and understandable issue-level budget. While some budget information is currently posted on-line, citizens can only obtain very general information about budget expenditures, as opposed to detailed and specific information. By making more detailed information available to citizens, we can better enable them to understand how their tax dollars are being spent and influence the actions of their elected officials."
Senator Cuccinelli also read a statement from Attorney General Bob McDonnell endorsing the proposal. (McDonnell was holding his own press conference in another part of Richmond at the same time, but sent his statement to Cuccinelli via Blackberry.)

I was able to record the entire press conference on videotape and uploaded it just minutes ago to YouTube. The event lasted just under 25 minutes, so I have split the video into two parts.

Part I:

In part one, John Taylor of Tertium Quids introduces the four speakers. It includes the complete opening remarks by Kristina Rasmussen of NTU and the major part of Senator Cuccinelli's opening remarks.

Part II:

In part two, Senator Cuccinelli finishes his remarks, including his reading of the statement by the Attorney General, and Senator Petersen and Delegate Cline give their remarks. John Taylor has a few comments, and there are questions from the audience and answers from the speakers.

The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star has already editorially endorsed this legislation. In the lead editorial this morning, the newspaper said:
A couple of existent programs nibble around the edges of what the senator and his co-patrons hope to accomplish. Virginia Performs, an administration creation, rates the progress of state agencies in pursuing quality-of-life goals. The state Auditor of Public Accounts' Commonwealth Data Point, a Web site, paints a broad-brush portrait of how state government operates, including in the budgetary realm. But both programs are deficient in the all-important "fine print" category.

Mr. Kaine should support this transparency initiative, not because it would make his life easier operationally--the measure, for example, would expose to the cyberized world the practice of some state agencies to shift funds among program accounts--but because in principle it's the right and progressive thing to do. The money with which the legislative cardinalate and administration nabobs play government is the people's money. They should be able to see what becomes of it, quickly and easily, every step of the way.
Expect more newspapers -- which have a clear interest in freedom of information -- to endorse this initiative in the weeks to come.

UPDATE: The bills have now been submitted in both the House and Senate. Delegate Ben Cline has introduced HB1360, with the short title "Searchable budget database website." Senator Ken Cuccinelli has introduced SB585, with the same short title and this summary:
Searchable budget database website. Requires the Director of the Department of Planning and Budget to maintain a searchable budget database website that would allow persons to search and aggregate information for individual or specific appropriations or budget items. The Director would be required to have the database operational by July 1, 2009. When fully operational, all data in the database would be maintained for a minimum of 10 years. The bill would require to the Director to work with the Auditor of Public Accounts and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to avoid any duplication of efforts.
(Legislative information comes courtesy of Richmond Sunlight.)

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