Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Budget Transparency in Virginia - Take Two

Last year, a bipartisan coalition of delegates and state senators supported legislation to bring more transparency to the Virginia budget, by requiring state agencies to post all their revenues and expenditures on-line in an easily searchable (and Googleable) format. Under current conditions, even members of the General Assembly -- other than Finance Committee chairmen -- are sometimes forced to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in order to obtain budget data from state agencies. (Imagine how much more difficult it is for average citizens to find out how their tax dollars are being spent.)

Unfortunately, last year's proposals failed to win approval by the General Assembly, so this year new bills are being introduced for the same purpose.

The bills are patroned on the state Senate side by Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Chap Petersen (both of Fairfax County)with SB 936 and on the House side by Delegate Ben Cline (R-Amherst) with HB 1360.

Yesterday there was a news conference in the state Capitol building in Richmond, sponsored by the statewide advocacy group, Tertium Quids, at which Cline, Cuccinelli, and Petersen spoke about the legislation. Tertium Quids president John Taylor -- who also hosts the monthly Tuesday Morning Group Coalition meetings -- introduce the legislators and also spoke about other legislative initiatives that Tertium Quids is supporting during this year's General Assembly session.

Taylor noted that similar budget transparency legislation at the federal level was pushed through Congress by the efforts of then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who reiterated his support for such transparency last week when, as President-elect, he gave a major speech on economic matters at George Mason University.

Obama had cosponsored the federal legislation with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn. When the searchable database went live in late 2007, Obama made these remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate (from the Congressional Record, December 13, 2007; pp. S15456-S15457):

Mr. President, I am very pleased to celebrate today's launch of This is an important day, an important milestone on the path to greater openness and transparency in the Federal Government. This site helps us to achieve a very simple and powerful vision: a vision that, in a democracy, the people ought to know what their Government is doing: how the Government is raising and spending money, how it is making and enforcing law, how it is supporting projects, how decisions are being made, and how results are being evaluated.

It is not a Democratic vision or a Republican vision. It is a commonsense vision of Government transparency and accessibility. It is a vision that rejects the idea that Government actions and decisions should be kept secret or classified. It is a vision that believes that information is at the heart of democracy and that we all must resist the dangerous trend of withholding or classifying or burying information that the American people have a right to know and need to know if they are to hold their leaders accountable.

I have been very troubled by the extent to which America has become a nation of government secrets. More and more information is kept secret or made intolerably complicated and inaccessible. More and more decisions are made behind closed doors with access limited to insiders and lobbyists. along with watchdog groups will give us all tools to help buck that trend. It will help by opening Government processes up to public view. It will provide a window into the Federal budget so all Americans can see how their tax dollars are being spent--how their Nation's resources are being used and obligated, where money is going as well as where it is not going. We will be able to see which grantees and contractors are receiving money and the congressional district where the contract's services are performed. We will see which agencies are purchasing what, from whom, and where. Technology makes it possible for every American to know what is happening and to hold elected officials accountable.

If Government spending can't withstand public scrutiny, then the money shouldn't be spent. If a Government agency isn't willing to be held accountable for the grants or contracts it awards, then that agency shouldn't have control over Federal resources. Whether you believe the Government ought to spend more money or spend less, you should certainly be able to agree that the Government ought to spend every penny efficiently and transparently. Democrats and Republicans can all agree that wasteful spending is unacceptable, whether it is by FEMA, HUD, DOD, or any other Federal agency.

Transparency by itself is not enough, but transparency is the first step to holding Government accountable for its actions. Transparency is a prerequisite to oversight and financial control. We can't reduce waste, fraud, and abuse without knowing how, where, and why Federal money is flowing out the door. is a very good beginning. The Web site does not yet deliver everything that it is required to under the law, but its limitations and shortcomings are transparent, and it will get better and more complete week after week. I am also confident that people will use the site and will provide feedback directly on the site's community ``Wiki'' function for collecting and sharing public comments. This will raise the expectations of all Americans for greater transparency, access, and accountability. Now it will be up to us elected officials to meet those expectations.

It is important to point out that this site would not have been possible without the grassroots efforts of watchdog groups across the political spectrum who lobbied for passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which Senator Coburn and I like to call the Transparency Act. The story behind the Transparency Act embodies the best of our democratic traditions--a bipartisan effort fueled by ordinary people who refused to accept that the Government couldn't make public information freely and simply available. Throughout this process, it has been an honor to work with Senator Coburn and to witness the dedicated work of the staff at OMB.

At Tuesday's press conference in Richmond, I was able to capture the remarks of Taylor, Cline, Cuccinelli, and Petersen on video. I posted the video to YouTube in seven distinct sections.

In Part I, John Taylor talks about Tertium Quids overall legislative agenda:

In Part II, Delegate Ben Cline discusses his budget transparency initiative:

State Senator Ken Cuccinelli takes his turn in Part III:

State Senator Chap Petersen offers his (brief) thoughts on budget transparency in Part IV:

In Part V, John Taylor takes to the lectern to summarize what's been said and then to open up the floor to questions:

Taylor, Cline, Cuccinelli, and Petersen take questions from the press and other attendees in Parts VI and VII:

Several news outlets covered the press conference. D.C. all-news radio station WTOP has a report by Hank Silverberg, who notes:

The bill has bipartisan support.

"I look at this bill kind of like that old Sy Sims commercial -- an educated consumer is our best customer," says Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax). "I believe that in politics."

A companion bill would also change state law to allow local governments to set up the same kind of database for their budgets. Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties have already expressed interest in doing that.

Both Richmond TV station WRIC (Channel 8) and the Lynchburg News & Advance covered the event, but I have been unable to find reports on their web sites. Perhaps those will be posted later today.

Update, January 14: I understand WRIC-TV used some images from yesterday's press conference on its noon news broadcast today, but I still haven't been able to find anything on the TV station's web site.

On the other hand, Cheryl Chumley has a report in today's Stafford County Sun, with a headline related to the news that the House of Delegates will now videostream its sessions on line. On the budget transparency issue, Chumley, a reporter with the News & Messenger, writes:
On Tuesday, two more Republicans united with a Democrat in a press conference at the Senate Building to promote and highlight upcoming legislation.

“Transparency,“ said John Taylor, from Gainesville, whose nonprofit issue advocacy group Tertium Quids was hosting the affair, “is an issue whose time has come.“

In attendance — and agreeing with that principle via sponsorship or support of various related pieces of legislation — were Sens. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, as well as Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst. All are pushing to require Virginia’s budgets and expenditures be posted online.

“It will help us by putting millions of eyeballs on our budget,“ said Cline, who added his passion for the open government measure stemmed from seeing a lottery ticket showing Donald Trump’s picture.

“I know Donald Trump doesn’t do anything for free,“ he said, and following what he described as a lengthy inquiry process, he finally learned the cost for this licensing agreement. “It was a quarter-million dollars. That upset me. That upset my constituents when I told them about it.“

The cost for posting Virginia’s budget was figured at $300,000 last year, Cuccinelli said. But “that estimate is outrageously high,“ he said, as other states post the same without any price tag to taxpayers. This year’s estimate is not yet available, he said.

The idea of an online budget has been brought before the General Assembly in past years. During the last session, one such bill was shot down largely due to efforts of Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, who is also chairman of the subcommittee that deals with Freedom of Information Act issues, according to speakers and audience members who recalled the vote.

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