Mike Moyle, the new Idaho House speaker, provoked a subject worth considering early in this session when he proposed the legislature change the way it approves, internally, state budgets.
For more than half a century, the process has worked like this: From the beginning of each session, the 10 members of each of the two budget committees - Senate Finance and House Appropriations - convene together nearly every day the legislature is in session. (Together, it is called the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, or JFAC as Statehouse people usually call it.) It has by far the most physical building space of any committee, and it long has had a substantial year-round professional staff.
At first committee members get budget and revenue overviews, then hear public requests and proposals from state agencies (that’s where they are right now in this session). Then they pause to catch their breath, and start negotiating and voting on the dollar amounts. Those budgets, mostly agency by agency, are sent in bill form to the Senate and House floors - they’re split between them, with first one then the other chamber voting. Usually they pass the bills as written by JFAC and send them on to the governor for signature.
Occasionally there’s a controversy in the process, and JFAC sometimes has been known to rewrite a budget after a floor rejection, but mostly it has for decades worked like a factory process.
Not every state does it this way. Some split the budget-writing between two committees that have little to do with each other (and often then have to negotiate later), or simply divide the voting rather than have a single joint committee do the job at once.
The latter approach seems to be what the speaker is aiming toward. There’s political logic to it: Actually, more rationales than just one. Moyle pointed out, accurately, that in recent sessions House Republicans (the caucus as a whole) have had divided reactions to budget bills coming from the joint committee, and a bill which has pre-approval from a majority of the House members on the committee (since it would be possible for a bill to progress with a majority of the senators but a minority of House members) might have more traction on the House floor.
Of course, that wouldn’t address some of the inevitable discrepancy. The JFAC members, exposed to extensive testimony and detailed budget analysis from staff and other people, simply have deeper grounding in the fine grain of the budget than most other Senate or House members do.
Getting the Senate and House committees to vote separately might do something else too: Weaken JFAC, which usually is considered by far the most powerful legislative committee. The Senate and House members there traditionally work closely together and the budgets they develop are challenged on the floor only uncommonly: Those 20 legislators ordinarily set the terms of state government as much as all the rest put together.
The down side is the complexity of the process. Which side, House or Senate, develops a budget proposal first? If the other side rejects it, what sort of process would they go through to come to an agreement? Eventually, House and Senate committees both still would have to come to terms on numbers. A broken-up vote process would make that much more complex.
It’s not hard to imagine it adding two or three weeks to a legislative session - unless, of course, the members quietly met to hash out behind-closed-doors deals on what would get majority votes on both sides. And considering the many times that quiet negotiations among JFACers have determined important budget bills in the past, you can imagine that as more likely in the future rather than less. A good deal less of the sometimes frustrating work of budget crafting might take place in public.
Of course, as noted, various states use a range of procedures in building their budgets at the legislative level, and none are perfect. In Idaho, after half a century and more of one procedure, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at alternatives.
As legislators do consider the options, though, they may be wise to consider whether they’re looking at taking a step forward, or back.