Bill to shine a light on conference committee earmarks may actually have a chance of passing

Over at the Family Foundation’s blog, Steve Rossie has a great write-up on a budget-making transparency bill patroned, for some years, by Sen. Tommy Norment that might finally have a chance of passing the General Assembly.

The bill in question, SB 1129, would:

Require[] the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to issue reports concurrently with the budget conference report that specifically identify (i) any nonstate agency appropriation, (ii) 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 (iii) any item that represents legislation that failed in either house during the regular or a special session.

In other words, it would shine light on the earmarks that inevitably find their way into the budget conference report.

As Steve notes, the bill has typically passed the Senate (and did so unanimously this year), only to be sent to a specially designated “kill” sub-committee in the House of Delegates. Why would the House be against earmark disclosure? Take a good guess.

There has been a subtle, but important, change this time around in the House. And the change is noted in the wording of the bill’s fiscal impact statement:

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.

Interesting, and as Steve writes “…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.”

That influence cannot be overstated — it has been know to extend so far as to providing committee chairmen with a set of fairly specific stage directions for tabling unwanted legislation.

No matter what the reason, here’s hoping the committee that has had a reputation for killing bills in the past takes the hint and passes Norment’s bill. It will be a handy tool for keeping conference committees honest, and introduce an added layer of accountability for all General Assembly members.

One other reason this bill might get further than ever before and — possibly — even pass the House? The infamous “kill” subcommittee members include one Del. Scott Lingamfelter, running for the GOP’s lieutenant governor nomination. He’s not exactly been a friend of this bill in the past. I suspect he will be now.

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