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Votes

Reese Agenda: Budget Reform, Tobacco Tax

Carrying 28 bills — his largest amount, ever — into his fourth session in the General Assembly, Del. Gary Reese (R-67th) hit the ground running.

Not only is the former Sully District School Board representative trying to raise money for education, but he hopes to turn the state budget document into an understandable document — and one that people can hold responsible.

"There's almost a complete lack of accountability in Virginia's budget," said Reese, of Oak Hill. "We want a transparent and accountable budget."

His major bill, HB 973, is called the Budget Reform and Inspector General Bill of 2004. It requires the budget be broken down — not just by departments and agencies — but also by programs and activities.

"It requires further that, at each level, there be specific, identified goals and objectives — and that there be measurable performance standards," explained Reese. "It also requires the budget to tell how much was spent on a particular department, agency, program and activity, two years ago and last year, so we've got two years of financial history."

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

The inspector general would be called upon to work with every department and agency for the development of performance standards for these departments, agencies, programs and activities. And that office would conduct — on a cyclical basis — independent evaluations of all these entities.

THE INSPECTOR GENERAL would be appointed for a six-year term by the governor — subject to confirmation by both houses. He or she would be given full subpoena power of both persons and documents and would have jurisdiction over, not only state agencies, but non-state agencies receiving state funds.

"He or she would be a very powerful person, at that point," said Reese. And this person would report to the governor and to the General Assembly. The inspector general may also do evaluations on his own, at the request of the governor or at the request of either house of the legislature.

Reese introduced this bill, the first day of the session — Jan. 14 — and on Tuesday, Jan. 20, it passed the house General Laws Committee unanimously. Delighted, he said it's now "headed to Appropriations and has more than 50 co-patrons from both sides of the aisle [Republicans and Democrats]."

In the wake of various corporate debacles such as the Enron scandal, he's also introduced a Corporate Fraud bill. It applies to Virginia businesses which have been convicted under Sarbanes-Oxley — the federal, corporate-fraud bill.

It also applies to businesses convicted under the securities and exchange laws at state or federal level — businesses found guilty of corporate governance fraud or corporate accounting fraud and fined $500,000 or more. These businesses would be barred from doing business with the Commonwealth of Virginia for three years.

"This is not retroactive," stressed Reese. "It only deals with things after it takes effect. But it's to make sure these things never happen again." This bill is currently in the house General Laws Committee.

He also has two tobacco-tax bills. One would increase the state tobacco tax from 2.5 cents/pack of cigarettes — the lowest in the nation — to 50 cents/pack. "That would still place us under the national average of 60 cents/pack and would produce $285 million a year," said Reese. "And the bill dedicates that money to K-12 education."

HIS OTHER tobacco-tax bill would give counties the right to increase their tobacco tax from a nickel/pack to 50 cents/pack — with the stipulation that the additional revenue that would generate would be used to offset property taxes. Added Reese: "It requires the Board of Supervisors to hold a public hearing and explain how they'd [do this]."

He said both bills will probably go to a special subcommittee on tobacco taxes. And he's also proposing 24 other bills on a wide range of topics. "Said Reese: We're working very hard, down here."

He said resolutions have already been passed honoring the Westfield High Bulldogs for winning the 2003 state football championship and Life Time Fitness instructor Sean Burch for successfully climbing Mount Everest (without oxygen).

"We're doing some good work," said Reese. "Last week, I spent almost all of my time on the budget bill because those would be monumental changes in the way the budget is handled in Virginia. We're sending that bill to the governor, as well as one which puts some organization into the way the state manages the property it owns or leases."

However, he added, "Other than the tobacco tax, I'm uncomfortable giving additional discretionary income to the state until such time as we have budget reform, so we can understand and evaluate what we're doing now." He noted that his tobacco-tax bills increase revenue, but directly dedicate it to local schools.

OVERALL, said Reese, "Trying to convince those who have the power to understand the budget to give up the keys to the kingdom is tough. And that's why we worked so hard, so early, to get so many patrons — so they'd understand the broad support this bill has. At times, you realize there's an idea whose time has arrived. And for this bill, this may be it."

An attorney, Reese has to put his law practice on hold, for awhile, while he's busy attending to his state-delegate duties in Richmond. But despite all the hard work and long hours, one gets the sense that he really likes, believes in and takes tremendous pride in what he's doing.

"The House of Delegates and the Senate are made up of some of the finest people in Virginia," he said. "And I thoroughly enjoy working with them."

Reese may be reached at 804-698-1067, by mail at P.O. Box 406, Room 807, Richmond, VA 23218, or at Del_Reese@house.state.va.us.