Cost of Virginia government has gone up more than 3,400 percent in 30 years

Paul GoldmanBy Paul Goldman

Let me make a friendly challenge while you read this article: start trying to guess how much it costs to run the "Legislative Department" as the General Assembly and its operations are known in state budget line item lingo.

The biennium state budget passed shortly after Linwood Holton became the first Republican governor in 1970 appropriated around $3.5 million to operate the "Legislative Department," including the money for the Capitol Police then not included in this part of the budget.

So I ask you: What do you think has been the increase in the "Legislative Department" budget in the past 30or so years?

Most people would guess 500 percent. This is understandable. I mean: How many Virginians working in the 1970s have had a 500 percent rise in their incomes in the past thirty years? Not very many.

Let me see: 3.5 million times 5 would equal 17.5 million.

Sorry, but that number isn't even close to actual budget appropriation. According to the new state budget, General Assembly leaders say they would have to shut down the State Legislature if that is all the funds they were given. A tempting thought no doubt, but that's for another column.

Fact: Right now, General Assembly members receive more than $4 million in undocumented and unaccounted-for expenses ALONE during a budget cycle.

So please, check that blood pressure: I don't want anyone having a stroke while reading this column.

Your next guess, please:

$35 million? This would translate into a 1,000 percent increase in the legislature's budget.

Let's put that in perspective. If you bought a home in 1972 and it cost $35,000, then a 1,000 percent increase would make it worth $350,000 today.

This is surely not the experience of most people in Virginia.

Sorry: but again, this isn't even close.

2,000 percent?

This would equate to a $70 million price tag for the General Assembly and their Legislative Department.

That's a lot of money, enough to get you a cushy spot on the list of Virginia's 100 richest families.

But still way short. The right number: According to Item 24, on page 17 of the State Budget approved on May 7, 2002 by Gov. Warner, the total cost of the "Legislative Department" is given as $119,460,976 dollars. Naturally, this does NOT include any other money the General Assembly is hiding in other parts of the budget, a document over 500 pages of small print and buried political expenditures.

This equals a 3,000 percent percent increase. Actually, my online calculator says 3,413 percent. But let's use 3,000 percent, as it is an easy to remember round number.

At their spending rate, it will not be long before we can call every member of the General Assembly the $1,000,000 man -- or woman -- as the case may be. Move over Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, TV's six million dollar man and woman.

I ask you: If this is the budget work of the self-described "conservative" GOP majority in the House of Delegates, one can hardly imagine what they think would happen if "liberals" were running the State Legislature.

But to be fair to these wild spenders, the Legislative Department consists of several different agencies, such as the Capitol Police force, which has grown to a cost of more than $10 million a budget cycle and more than 100 positions. In addition, there is the Auditor of Public Accounts, responsible for financial compliance audits, although clearly he has not made one of the General Assembly recently. His operation costs more than $19 million. Additionally, there is a budget line item for a Senate Discretionary Fund of more than $6 million that goes to pay for certain Medicaid and indigent care.

These are important state functions. But at the same time, the state budget says that the cost of running the General Assembly -- the staff salaries, the growing number of year-round committee and subcommittee meetings, the two annual state Legislative sessions, the record high expense accounts and per tops-in-the-nation per diem compensation, the pensions, the availability of year-round taxpayer-subsidized health care for part-time legislators, and the like -- now totals an incredible, mind-boggling $52,231,182 of the people's tax dollars.

Moreover, this does not include the cost for researching, drafting and printing the thousands of pieces of legislation submitted by legislators each year, even though most are not taken seriously by the General Assembly. The State budget puts the cost of this Division of Legislative Services at approximately $8.8 million when you deduct the money in this budget which goes for increased building maintenance at the General Assembly Building.

Add those two budget line items together and you get a total in excess of $60 million.

Despite the existence of a Secretary of Technology in the governor's Cabinet, and an entire information technology apparatus in the Executive Branch, the state budget says the Legislative Department also has it's own separate Division of Legislative Automated Services at a cost of more than 6 million per budget cycle.

The Legislative Department budget also contains roughly $1.35 million for the Virginia Commission on Intergovernmental Cooperation, nearly 1.2 million for the Virginia Crime Commission, about $850,000 for the Joint Commission on Health Care, around $325,000 for the Joint Commission on Technology and Science, roughly $300,000 for the Virginia Housing Study Commission, nearly $300,000 for the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, even $79,000 for the Commissioners for Promotion of Uniformity of Legislation.

I mention these entities because there also exists in state government numerous other agencies and commissions, to say nothing of individuals, also focusing on many if not most of the these areas. Clearly it is possible to combine some of these entities and thus save a substantial amount of money to be used to protect the delivery of essential services.

Conclusion: General Assembly spending is out of control. I am not alone in this thinking either. Last week, Lt. Gov. Kaine announced that he was not going to take the $32,400 made available to his office every budget cycle for the supposed "reimbursement" of expenses: money given to the lieutenant governor without his having to document any such expenses.

Kaine should be applauded for his precedent-setting act of fiscal responsibility and accountability. A close reading of this budget item also says the Speaker of the House of Delegates likewise gets this same amount of undocumented expense money. But to date, Speaker Bill Howell has not said whether he will follow the lieutenant governor's example.

Atty. Gen. Kilgore has announced that he will now be the first attorney general to only take money for documented expenses, and thus reject the way the legislators take money allocated for reimbursed expenses without providing any proof that they did in fact have such expenses.

Mr. Kilgore should also be praised for taking this unprecedented step.

Gov. Warner has announced that instead of hiring someone to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of his policy chief, he is going to assign her former duties to the counsel to the governor. He, too, accepts the premise that I and others have advocating: there is plenty of opportunity to merge functions. This will save money, and improve efficiency.

Bottom line: The General Assembly's $120 million budget can be cut by 10 percent or more, roughly the size being talked about by the state's Secretary of Finance in terms of average line item budget cuts for many other state activities.

In that regard, the same amount -- in my judgment -- can and should be cut from the nearly $4.9 million allocated to operate the governor's office, the $850,000 given to the Office of Lieutenant Governor and roughly 48.5 million in the budget for the attorney general.

It would be a terrible mistake for the politically powerful to believe they can exclude themselves from carrying their fair burden of the "shared sacrifice" they say is necessary.

(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002