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A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Group: State is porking up; B1

‘Virginia Piglet Book’ analyzes where, how money spent

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Don’t think of it as pork.

Think of it as Virginia ham. Lots of Virginia ham.

State government could save billions of dollars by taking a hard look at the way it spends money and acting more like a business, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a government watchdog group in Washington.

The group, best known for its annual Pig Book catalog of pork barrel programs at the federal level, this week revealed its “Virginia Piglet Book,” a look at how and where the commonwealth is spending money.

Richmond is wasting about as much money each year as it raised with the tax hike of 2004, which brought some $1.6 billion in new money into the state’s treasury, according to the group.

From 1997 to 2006, the budget has packed on an average of 16 percent more money each biennium. The general fund alone has added 85 percent over the past decade.

“It took the state government in Virginia 386 years to reach a $30 billion annual budget,” they wrote. “It has taken only the last 10 years to add a second $30 billion to that budget.”

At the same time, transportation spending — one of the key issues in this year’s gubernatorial campaign — has remained virtually unchanged.

“The problem in Virginia is clearly not a lack of revenue, but a lack of priorities,” the group wrote.

Among the biggest findings in the book were:

• Getting out of the booze business would put another $700 million each year back into the state’s coffers.
Virginia is one of 18 states that doesn’t allow for the private retail sale of liquor.

Privatizing the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control stores would save all the money without surrendering the state’s enforcement powers for alcohol sales.

• Implementing the findings of the Wilder Commission, a study requested by Gov. Mark R. Warner and led by former Gov. Douglas Wilder, could save the state as much as $750 million each year.

Changing the state’s procurement system would save $500 million a year, while streamlining information technology would save $100 million more.

• Bidding out road maintenance done by the Virginia Department of Transportation could save $285 million each year.
“An added benefit may be that the quality of some of the commonwealth’s roads might improve,” the authors wrote.

• Virginia needs an inspector general, or something like the Government Accountability Office at the federal level to ride herd on the bureaucracy to prevent waste.

None of these things would be considered radical suggestions in the business world, said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. But in government, they’re usually not the first choice when financial hard times appear.

“A lot of things that the government does are not necessarily best done by the government,” he said.

It’s not even that the government is incapable of doing a good job, he said. Rather, there’s no competition to force the enterprise to drive down its costs.

“We don’t necessarily care who gets the contracts or wins the bid, what we’re concerned about is the lack of competition,” Schatz said.

Said simply, when competition is involved, the taxpayer wins.

Rumblings in Richmond of a major new transportation spending initiative to appear in January — and tax hikes to pay for it — are illustrative of the mindset that leads to wasted money, he said.

“The solution is often let’s raise taxes to build more [schools, roads or other facilities] or teach more kids,” he said.

There’s some new ground covered in the Piglet book, but much of it relies on the Wilder Commission’s findings, which the Warner administration and the General Assembly have had since 2002.

Motivating government to tighten its belt is “up to people outside of Richmond, since [the government] ignored these recommendations for years,” Schatz said.