Transparency? Hah!

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Maybe it was the weirdness of amending the biennial budget after Year 2 of the biennium had started.  Maybe all the money they had to spend made them dizzy. Maybe they were in a hurry because many of them were in the middle of re-election campaigns. Whatever the reason, the General Assembly decided in its special session to adopt the budget to sacrifice transparency in favor of efficiency.

A quick review of the normal procedure will serve to clarify how different this year was. Normally, after both houses have considered the budget bill and rejected each other’s version, the bill is sent to a conference committee comprised of members from both houses. In a largely shrouded process, the conference committee eventually produces a report consisting of all the changes to the introduced budget bill that its members have agreed upon. (Comparisons to the Vatican College of Cardinals electing a new Pope are apt.)

A conference report will typically consist of hundreds of separate amendments, including lengthy language amendments, and is a formidable document. For example, the budget conference report for the 2021 Special Session I had 271 pages.

The conference report is first taken up by the House of Delegates.  Technically, the report can be voted on as a whole. However, any member can request that a specific amendment “be taken out of the bloc” and voted on separately.

After the members have finished requesting items be separated, the remaining amendments are adopted as a bloc in a single vote. Attention then turns to the items taken out of the bloc. Each one is debated and voted on. If a majority of delegates vote “No” on the question of whether the amendment shall be adopted, it is dead. After all the separated items are voted on, the report, minus any items rejected, is sent to the Senate and the process is repeated.

After both houses have completed consideration of the budget bill, staff members of both houses prepare a bill that incorporates all the adopted amendments, called the enrolled bill, which is sent to the Governor for his consideration.

It is exceedingly rare for an item in a budget conference report to be rejected. However, the process gives legislators a chance to challenge budget amendments they don’t like and go on record publicly opposing them. In addition, the conference report is clear and official documentation of the budget amendments adopted by the General Assembly.

The process this year was different. There was no conference report. There were no standalone amendments. The budget bill (HB 6100) was introduced with amendments already incorporated. These amendments were obviously produced from somewhere and agreed upon by someone, but there was no documentation. In effect, the bill that was introduced was the enrolled bill.

The staffs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Appropriations committees prepared briefing materials so their members could know the major changes in the budget bill. The members then proceeded to adopt the budget bill by overwhelming majorities. (The bill went through committees and floor votes in both houses on the same day.)

The briefing materials were well-done and informative. Furthermore, they were posted on the websites of both committees. Unavoidably, however, the summaries did not include every item, only the major ones, and not the exact wording of the numerous language amendments. Nevertheless, to be fair, the legislators were probably as well-informed concerning what was in the budget amendments as they had been with a conference report. The only difference was they could not easily single out a specific amendment for a complaint and a separate vote on that amendment.

The main casualty of the process this year was transparency for the public. For non-legislators, including the media, interest group members, state agency staff, and the general public, the conference report was a handy compendium of the budget actions. That document was their guide to the budget actions taken by the General Assembly. For the 2023 Session, that guide does not exist.

It is true that many of the changes in appropriations were accompanied by language amendments that specified what the additional money was to be used for. However, that is not always the case.  For example, the appropriation for Item 294 was increased by $1,642,178, but there is no accompanying language that provides any indication what that extra money is for. The subject of the Item provides some hint of the intended use. It is the location of the program “Community Health Services” under the Department of Health. Furthermore, the allocation for the service area “Support for Local Management, Business, and Facilities” is increased by that amount, which helps pinpoint it some more. However, one still does not why the legislature provided the Department of Health this additional $1.6 million. The answer lies in a spreadsheet that was included in the briefing packages of the staff of each committee. From that spreadsheet, one can find that the additional appropriation for Item 294 was for “Rent Costs for Local Health Departments.” It should be pointed out here that this spreadsheet is not an official document in the sense the wording in an amendment adopted by the General Assembly is.

Even when there is language setting out the purpose of the additional appropriation, one has to know where in the budget bill to find it. For example, to learn if the General Assembly provided the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services additional funding for supportive housing, one has to know that the program designated in Item 313 of the budget bill is the place to look and then has to pore through several pages of dense printed language before discovering that the amount for supportive housing was increased by $30 million.

Of course, the briefing material breaks out the additional funding for mental health services and shows the $30 million for supportive housing. However, people are used to looking in the Legislative Information System (LIS) for this information and may not know that the briefing materials exist or where to find them. (It does not help that LIS has this notation with regard to amendments to the 2023 budget bill: “Amendments will be posted when available.”)

This lack of a conference report in 2023 will create a lot of problems for future analysts. For example, analysts in the Department of Planning and Budget rely heavily on conference reports in preparing the funding history of specific programs, which they need to do fairly often. Conference reports have been essential to the research I have been doing on an article currently being prepared. In the future, state analysts and private researchers will need to be aware that, in the absence of a conference report, they will need to comb through the 2023 budget bill for answers or go through the briefing materials stored on the website archives of the two money committees.

In summary, in 2023, the General Assembly diminished public transparency of its actions for reasons of expediency.