$165M Rail Hike Hidden in Budget Amendment

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This article originally appeared on Fairfax Free Citizen.

By News Hound

Virginia State Capitol (Wikipedia)

Virginia State Capitol (Wikipedia)

In a vote on a “technical correction” amendment of House Bill 5002 that recently took place in the Virginia General Assembly’s Special Session to pass the 2015 budget, House members unknowingly approved a $165 million increase in light rail funding. A “blind” approval of a $165 million budget buster:  how does this happen?

The General Assembly is an incredibly efficient place. Over the course of just 60 days, legislators hear and vote on over 2,000 bills. This allows many issues to be raised, discussed, and resolved. In politics, reading legislation is slow, tedious, but important work. Nowhere is this more important than in the budget process, where billions of dollars are appropriated. With significant reforms to state government being discussed, it is very important to take a close look at the budget process going on in Richmond.

However, in that process it is often challenging for legislators to know all the details of legislation requiring their votes. Legislator staffs consist of no more than two paid employees, and it is common for multi-page amendments to be distributed and voted on minutes later. Moreover, it is also common for large blocks of legislation to be approved on an uncontested calendar where no scrutiny is given unless someone decides to pull a bill.

In this context, it is often common for lawmakers to vote on bills without having read them or understood their full implications. When that is the case, it is critical the summary information about the amendments be accurate. Sadly, this is not always the case.

An incident of uninformed voting recently took place with the budget bill. In the Special Session on the budget, hundreds of amendments were voted on for HB 5002. One of them was amendment #439. This amendment was described as “a technical correction to House Bill 30 as introduced that replaces annualized number estimates with updated estimates.” The amendment is simply a listing of numbers that are replaced with other numbers.

Amendment 439 to Virginia House Bill 30

Amendment 439 to Virginia House Bill 30

Also on the listing of amendments, the amendment is reported as increasing the budget by $0.00 over the next two fiscal years.

At first glance it seems plausible the amendment was only an estimate update. The important thing is to look at the specific section of the bill being amended. This amendment amends a section of the budget dealing with the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Each estimate adjustment changes a specific amount of money on a specific line of section 439. Upon reading Section 439, it is clear none of the money changed in the section is an estimate update. Instead, the first two changed numbers amend a sentence saying:

“The total appropriation for the Commonwealth Mass Transit Fund is $160,361,138 the first year and $160,361,138 the second year from the Transportation Trust Fund.”

What the amendment does, in fact, is to increase light rail allocations to $237,748,173 and $248,236,659 respectively for the next two years. This adds up to a total increase of $165,262,556. The rest of that section of the budget deals with how the funds will be spent, and the amendment increases those allocations accordingly.

Increasing the light rail appropriation by $165 million is a large spending increase. Doing it while saying you are not increasing spending is incredible. Someone seems to be trying to tuck away an enormous spending increase without it being noticed. Asking why may be a worthwhile inquiry.

In the mean time, it shows the crucial need for reading the budget in depth and giving others time to read and analyze it. This is one example of the need to read legislation. Imagine what other surprises lurk in the extensive, detailed, multi-amended legislation considered each year by the General Assembly.

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The Fairfax Free Citizen (FxFC), an online newspaper started in January 2013, provides news and commentary of direct interest to residents of Fairfax County and surrounding environs. As the FxFC continues to develop, news coverage will expand to a wide range of local and state subjects, including government policies, economic growth, taxation, healthcare solutions, transportation, education, and individual community activities. FxFC's commentary section discusses the role of government and the freedom of citizens within the United States, with focus on current local, state, and federal issues that directly affect Fairfax County residents. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.