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Votes

Gov. Signing Reese's Budget-Reform Bill

Politicians aren't always known for doing something for the greater good, if it means putting their own political career in jeopardy. But Del. Gary Reese (R-67th) of Oak Hill has done just that.

And when Gov. Mark Warner signs Executive Order No. 67 into law, this week — creating an understandable budget and a state inspector general — it'll not just be an accomplishment for Reese, but a major hallmark in Virginia government.

Said Reese: "This is the most significant change in the way Virginia does business since the advent of the modern [state] constitution in 1971." And it came about because of his bill, HB 973, as well as the difficult decision he made to support a compromise budget.

When he went to Richmond in January for the start of the current General Assembly session, he brought with him HB 973, the Inspector General and Budget Reform Bill. It requires the state budget be broken down — not just by departments and agencies — but also by programs and activities.

Besides making the budget transparent and readily comprehensible to the average person, it also holds it accountable — calling for specific, identified goals and objectives at each level, plus measurable performance standards. And it compels the budget to reveal how much was spent on a particular department, agency, program and activity, two years ago and last year, to establish two years of financial history.

THE BILL also creates the Office of the Inspector General. "Elsewhere, these people investigate for fraud, waste and abuse," explained Reese. "Here, we've expanded the definition of waste to include inefficiencies — and whether the function should be a governmental function."

The inspector general will work with every department and agency to develop performance standards for these departments, agencies, programs and activities. And that office will conduct, on a cyclical basis, independent evaluations of all these entities.

He or she will be appointed for a six-year term by the governor — subject to confirmation by both houses — and Reese said this could happen as soon as July 1. The inspector general will report to the governor and General Assembly and may also perform independent evaluations, at the request of the governor or either house of the legislature.

This person won't have subpoena power — because only the state legislature can grant that — but will have jurisdiction not only over state agencies, but also over non-state agencies receiving state funds. School boards fall in this category, and Reese said each school district's budget "needs to have a semblance of comparison, so you can compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges."

As a result of the new legislation, he said, the inspector general will be able to do evaluations "wherever the commonwealth's tax dollars are spent, to make sure these dollars are being spent wisely and efficiently."

Reese said Tuesday that Warner will appoint a working group to iron out the details of the budget reform. "The group will also recommend any additional legislation needed, and the framework of the new budget," he said.

"FOR FAR too long, Virginia's budget has been incomprehensible and unaccountable," he continued. But from now on, said Reese, "For those who say, 'We must cut the fat,' we'll have a document where they can look for it. And for those saying, 'We should spend more money,' they'll be able to see where we're effectively spending it now."

Reese introduced his bill, the first day of the session — Jan. 14; six days later, it passed the house General Laws Committee unanimously. It had more than 50 co-patrons, both Republican and Democrat, but ran into a snag in the Appropriations Committee. So Reese then took it directly to the governor — who saw its merit and gave it his approval.

"Three weeks ago, I never would have thought this was possible," said Reese. "But in the end, there began a series of discussions with the governor and his staff — resulting in a handshake, a letter of commitment from the governor and an executive order."

It also involved a great deal of serious thought and soul-searching on Reese's part. He knew Warner's support came with a price — in return, Reese would have to vote in favor of the compromise budget, and doing so would earn him enemies among members of his own party.

But as a man of principle, he couldn't back down. "I know that some in the Republican Party will come after me, full bore," he said. "But I've campaigned on budget reform for 13 years, and I couldn't give up the reason I'm here."

CALLING EXECUTIVE Order No. 67 a "breakthrough in good government," on Tuesday, Reese expressed his gratitude for Warner's help in bringing the provisions of HB 973 to fruition. He also thanked several other delegates — including Vince Callahan (R-34th), Jim Dillard (R-41st) and Tom Rust (R-86th) — for their "steadfast assistance."

Without their help, he said, the new legislation would not have been possible. But because of them and the governor, "Virginia will take a giant step toward restoring trust in government."

Reese said he hasn't voted in favor of any budget proposals during this General Assembly session, until now, "due to the absence of meaningful steps toward a transparent, citizen-friendly, state budget which would allow Virginians to fully understand how their hard-earned, tax dollars are being spent."

But with Executive Order No. 67 about to become law, he said, "I am proud to have played a role in this watershed effort to finally put responsible fiscal management into existence and, hopefully, such steps will prevent future budget stalemates in our commonwealth."