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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 09/ 9/2010

'Throttle the poor'? I'm just hoping for a readable budget

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

If I named a task that can consume my workday, I'd probably say it's scrolling through budgets, agendas, audits, meeting minutes and other materials so dry I sometimes wish they'd spontaneously combust. Those precious pre-deadline minutes can zoom by as I try to interpret data so I can pass along a digestable version to readers.

Dissecting the Virginia state budget can be especially challenging. I offer an example of how my recent search for annual spending on the Governor's Development Opportunity Fund went down. I wanted to find out how much each governor requested for the fund, and how much they actually got.

1. I go to the home page of the Legislative Information System. Click on 2010. Click on "state budget" in the left column. Easy enough so far.

2. Hmm. Faced with four budget bill options. Which one shows me the final budget: SB30, HB30, SB29 or HB29? I could also click on other budget bills under the headings "as introduced," "governor's recommendations," "as reenrolled" or "chapter" -- whatever that means.

3. After clicking around a bit, I call Mike Kaestner with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Good idea, because he helpfully explains to me that HB30 is where I need to search.

4. I click on HB30, then I click on "bill text" and I enter the table of contents. "Office of Commerce and Trade" seems to be a logical place to search. There's what I need, on Line 96 under "Economic Development Incentive Payments."

5. This should be easy, right? Now I just have to repeat this for every budget bill going back as far as I want. Except that for some years the budget bill has a different number, making me unsure I'm looking in the right place.

6. Not so fast. The information doesn't appear under "Commerce and Trade" when I get to 2007. After puttering around a bit and working the search engine, I discover that it's listed under Item 462 "Payments for Special or Unanticipated Expenditures" under "Central Appropriations."

And so it goes. I compose my list, but I feel dubious by the end that I pulled my numbers from all the right places. Mike becomes my hero when he calls later in the day to say he's found a list previously compiled.

Given this ordeal, I was pleased to see that making the budget more readable is one of dozens of recommendations by a subcommittee of Gov. Bob McDonnell's reform commission. Three other subcommittees will also bring their own ideas about streamlining government to a full commission meeting Monday.

But you wouldn't know about these ideas from all the chatter. Everyone's talking about the governor's push to privatize the liquor stores. Or -- like my fellow All Opinions Are Local blogger Peter Galuszka -- criticizing the governor for supposedly using the commission to underhandedly push his conservative views into every nook and cranny of government.

Galuszka suggests the commission exists to make the state "throttle the poor and the sick and let companies have their way with the state's rivers, lakes and air, along with the Chesapeake Bay."

Really? Everyone knows Gov. McDonnell wants to privatize the liquor stores, and he's using the commission as a platform to trumpet his proposal. But can you discredit the other ideas coming from these 31 commission members -- of whom a number are Democrats?

Del. Bob Brink, an Arlington Democrat, says he's used his seat on the commission to advocate for making state agency Web sites more accessible and, my personal favorite, making the budget easier to read. He speaks out a lot at his subcommittee's meetings and thinks the proposals are nonpartisan, for the most part.

"Most of the things we've done are not the Democrat or Republican way to do it," Brink told me.

As far as Galuszka's criticism of the commission's ties to the Mercatus Center -- a deregulation-orientated think tank affiliated with George Mason University whose vice president Maurice McTigue is on the commission -- well, it should be assumed the governor would appoint many members to the commission who agree with his own limited-government views.

If Galuszka wanted more evidence that McDonnell was subverting the role of the commission with a network of selected operatives, he should have also noted that Mike Thompson, president of the conservative think tank Thomas Jefferson Institute, is an adviser to the commission.

But so is Bill Leighty, former chief of staff to Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

So in the end, it's a toss-up. Maybe the commission will enact some good government reforms. Maybe it won't really get anything done. I just wish they'd make that darn budget easier to read so I could get off early once in a while.

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | September 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  DMV, Fairfax County, HotTopic, Local blog network, Prince William County, Tysons Corner, Va. Politics, Virginia  
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I am flattered that you find my post worth following. I truly hope that McDonnell's streamlining commission makes budgets more readable.
But I see a pattern with the governor's selections of his various commissions (just about every governor in recent memory has had one on "reforming" government with little result). I also see a pattern with how McDonnell prepares his budgets and what he cuts.
The ABC matter is his big enchilada, but his overall script is right out of the usual limited government, no taxes, no services, privatization playbook. It takes Virginia nowhere, but it could get him a few good pats on the back from the likes of Fred Barnes as he tries to set up his political future..

Peter Galuszka

Posted by: pgaluszka | September 9, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

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