Spending other people’s money can be such a thrill, particularly when there is lots of it to spend. On the other hand, when somebody else is spending your money, it is not so much fun. So it is good to place restrictions on those folks we delegate to spend our money for us. The problem? How do we keep the “thrill” seekers from evading those restriction, even the ones they supposedly placed upon themselves?
Victoria Cobb is the President of The Family Foundation. Here is an email she sent out last week.
Victoria Cobb, President
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
If you’ve ever worked in an office where there are lots of closed door meetings, you know what can happen over time. Trust diminishes, divisions arise, and eventually, productivity declines.
What happened yesterday in Richmond was a classic example of that, only it was on a much bigger stage, with issues that affect all of us being decided behind closed doors, with little or no transparency. And because this is how the General Assembly has operated in dealing with budgets and judges, few citizens trust the outcomes.
Regardless of whether or not the cause was intentional or an honest mistake in budget drafting, lawmakers yesterday had to once again fix the state budget in order to ensure that our taxes will go up, and money from those higher taxes will go where they “promised” it would go – to transportation. The details of the mishap are long and confusing, but in a nutshell, when the General Assembly increased taxes in 2013 to pay for transportation projects, they did so by assuring anyone who would listen that the money would always go to transportation. Some legislators even stood on the floor of the House of Delegates and said that they would vote against any budget that redirected the new tax money. When The Family Foundation questioned that guarantee in 2013, we were harshly chastised by Republican leaders at the time.
But then, for whatever reason, less than two years later, the new budget had money from that tax hike redirected to cover other areas of the budget due to revenue shortfalls. Such a redirect should have triggered a “kill switch,” ending the tax hike. How it happened is still a bit of a mystery and what you believe depends on who you trust. Whatever the case, yesterday, lawmakers had to quickly “fix” the problem and move the money back to transportation or face losing the tax hike they fought so hard to pass.
The problem with all of this is that many of the budget negotiations and decisions that are made take place behind closed doors, outside the scrutiny of the press and public. And, much of the detail is left to unelected and unaccountable House Appropriations and Senate Finance staff. In this year’s case, because the new budget was updated at a special session in September, lawmakers and the public had no time to actually read the document – everyone had to “trust” that it did what they were told. Only it didn’t.
For several years The Family Foundation has supported more transparency when it comes to the budget process. One helpful change would be to give lawmakers 48 hours to review the budget after it comes out of conference (where just 6 legislators from each chamber craft a budget, generally in secret). This simple bill would go a long way in helping the public to regain some “trust” in the budget and our elected officials. Would it mean that legislators might have to stay in town an extra couple of days? Maybe. But that seems a small price to pay to rebuild trust in our government.
Another bill we’ve supported would require budget negotiators (conferees) to detail for other members the exact changes to the budget they’ve made meeting behind closed doors, specifically the differences between their negotiated budget and the budgets the House and Senate adopted prior to the conference committee meetings.
In 2015, we plan to make budget transparency a top priority. Here’s hoping that legislators have learned a lesson from this year’s budget debacle. The more open the doors the better.
Yesterday, Delegate Bob Marshall sent this email.
No Recorded VOTES on Transportation Fund Diversion and Gas Tax Increase!
TRANSPORTATION FUNDS RESTORED: The good news is that $50 million in new transportation taxes raised under HB 2313 for transportation, which had been diverted to non-transportation uses, were restored in the recent budget session.
GAS TAX HIKE STARTS JANUARY 1, 2015: The bad news is our Republican Speaker ruled the amendment offered by myself and Delegate Berg, to stop the 5 cents per gallon gas tax hike set to start this January 1, not germane.
The Speaker also blocked a direct up or down vote to restore the “kill switch.” The “kill switch”was a promise to the public implemented as part of his tax increase bill (HB 2313) guaranteeing that should transportation taxes ever be diverted, the taxes would be “killed.”
Speaker Howell’s HB 2313 tax increase, which passed in 2013, increased the sales tax and several other taxes in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. The bill at first reduced the gas tax from 17.5 cents per gallon to 3.5% of the wholesale price as of 2/20/13, when gas prices were at their highest.
It also increased Virginia’s gas tax if Congress did not pass the “Market Place Fairness Act” which authorized Virginia to collect taxes (3.5% to 5.1%) from non-Virginia retailers selling in Virginia.
We now pay a 3.5% gas tax. In January that will increase to 5.1% . Based on gas prices of $3.17 per gallon, the gas tax will be 16.17 cents per gallon, just under the 17.5 cents prior to enactment of HB 2313. However, HB 2313 also increased the sales and several other taxes in 2013 to generate more revenue. Bottom line: we will be paying more come January!
My 11/10/14 amendment to Virginia’s Budget (HB 5010), would have prevented the automatic gas tax increase for the next two fiscal years unless approved by the Assembly on a separate vote in 2015 or after.
OBJECTION to AMENDMENT: Appropriations Committee Chair, Del. Chris Jones, objected to my amendment on grounds of “germaneness.” For an amendment to be germane, it must relate to the matter at hand. Surely Chairman Jones knew that his own budget bill, HB 5010, contained $351.9 million in new revenues from the gas tax.
The Speaker said, “Since the floor amendment addresses a subject matter beyond the scope of HB 5010, I’m going to rule that the floor amendment is not germane.” Again, $352 million in revenues contained in HB 5010 were generated by the Speaker’s own 2013 law and clearly referenced in the Budget bill, so germaneness was not the real problem. They simply did not want to go directly on record and vote on it.
I appealed the ruling to the House of Delegates, as is provided for in the Rules. My appeal failed 88-2. Only Delegate Mark Berg and I voted to overrule the Speaker’s decision.
The 88 delegates who sustained the Speaker’s improper ruling excused themselves from having to go on record on increasing our gas taxes about five cents a gallon starting January 1.
“KILL SWITCH’ DISABLED: The second amendment which myself and Delegate Berg offered to HB 5010, would have reinstated the “kill switch” to ensure that transportation taxes would cease if diverted by the state or localities in Northern Virginia and Tidewater.
Earlier versions of the current budget held back $30 million in new transportation revenues to be spent on other uses. That amount held back was increased to $50 million. These diversions did not flip the “kill switch” because the “kill switch” had already be neutered in an earlier version of the budget!
Again, the Republican leadership avoided a direct up or down vote on my amendment by using a parliamentary motion to “pass by” my amendment on a “voice vote” so no one’s vote would be recorded! The result: Virginia and its localities can divert future transportation funds to non-transportation purposes without killing the taxes although the “kill switch” promise was then part of Speaker Howell’s 2013 law.
ACTION ITEM: We were all outraged at Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor and major architect of Obamacare, who proudly manipulated and deceived the public, with a smug “I know better than you” attitude while he referred to citizens as “stupid.” Such attitudes have no place in government, including in Richmond.
Although there were required recorded votes in the House of Delegates and Senate on increasing a collection of taxes when HB 2313 passed, there has not been a direct vote to increase our fuel taxes, or a direct vote to suspend the “kill switch.” I believe “we the people” deserve better.
Please ask your delegate why he or she voted to sustain a clearly erroneous non-germane ruling from the Speaker to prevent a vote on my amendment to cut the gas tax increase. Also ask why he or she did not demand a record vote to reinstate the “kill switch” to prevent the diversion of future transportation money to other uses.
Thank you so much for your help! Please share with your friends.
Delegate Bob Marshall