Virginia Budget Negotiations Forge Ahead, in Secret
Virginia’s Senate and House have written their versions of the two-year state budget. But there’s a problem. The two budgets are about $600 million apart. A handful of lawmakers are now tasked with hammering out the difference, and all the wrangling happens behind closed doors.
Even though it's called the budget conference committee, it’s not really a formal committee at all. Because the conference is a tool created by state lawmakers, not by state code, it is informal and temporary.
“This would be akin to six members of the House and six members of the Senate deciding they wanted to get together for dinner and talking through some sort of disagreement the two chambers had over some piece of legislation," explains Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University. "That’s essentially what they’re doing.”
But in this case the disagreement lawmakers will be be hammering out is the entire two-year state budget. Major differences include pay raises for state employees, funding for mental health facilities, and Medicaid expansion.
Megan Rhyne with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says the question of transparency has been raised before. Local governments wouldn’t be allowed to talk budget details in secret, so why can state lawmakers?
“The reason that there is an exception for the General Assembly is because the General Assembly writes the rules," says Rhyne.
But there may be some benefit to those rules, suggests Kidd.
“In some ways this conference committee makes compromise more likely than if this negotiation were to be happening in the open," he says.
Efficiency might be another upside. Lawmakers have just ten days to wrap up the budget. Once the committee's work is done their compromise has to be made available for at least 48 hours before lawmakers debate and vote -- publicly.