As I travel across the country and I meet with legislators from cash-strapped states, I tell them that they should look carefully at their budgets to find savings. To use a metaphor, lawmakers need to reach into the cushions of their couch (aka the state and its bureaucracy) and feel around for the change that is lost and left there. By determining where the money is going, using funds as they should be, and finding savings here and there, legislators can help balance their budgets and meet their obligations without the need for burdensome tax hikes or draconian cuts. Sadly, few legislators have taken me up on the offer. Many of these lawmakers have told me that “budgets have been cut to the bone” and “there’s simply not enough savings” to do what they need to do.
The next time I hear a legislator say these things, I will send them a copy of this article from today’s Washington Post. Yesterday, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell announced that a new audit by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) found “hundreds of millions of dollars” sitting unspent in various accounts. In total, auditors found a little more than $1 billion in funding just sitting there; about $400 million in construction and maintenance accounts and, believe it or not, $654 million in federal money that was never allocated to any projects. That’s a lot of change.
The auditors also prepared a report explaining the problems, such as poor communication and inertia, which contributed to the loss of the money between the cushions of the couch known as VDOT. Auditors made 50 recommendations to correct these problems. McDonnell said that the state would move to implement these changes in the next 45 days. Sean Connaughton, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, said the state will decide what to do with the money in the next 45 days, but he indicated that at least some of the money will be spent on transportation projects in Northern Virginia such as improving the much-criticized and congested Interstates 66 and 95.
Virginia’s billion-dollar find of loose change is instructive for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the importance of good auditing and the need for transparency in government. NTU has worked with legislators, including Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli when he was a state senator, to implement meaningful budget process reforms, including the use of mechanisms to track spending. When we know where the tax dollars go, we see what should stay funded and what should go. Second, legislators should not discount eliminating waste and finding savings as a way to deal with budget problems. No legislator thinks $1 billion is small change. Granted, savings alone will not solve every problem that overspending creates, but it will go a long way. Let’s all have a go at digging between those couch cushions.