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Processed budgets

From Idaho’s Joint Finance Appropriations Committee come lessons in whether complication improves the process … or, what could possibly go wrong?

For decades – generations, actually – the Idaho legislative budget committee acronymed JFAC has had a consistent procedure when it comes to hearing budget proposals and then setting – writing and voting on – actual budgets for state spending on agencies and beyond.

It has involved splitting the work into two parts, spanning nearly all of most sessions. First come the hearings, in which state officials and others involved talk about what they need and propose, in a single comprehensive overview. Once that’s done, they take a short breather, after which the committee members go through the agencies one by one and pass a long series of budgets. All of it is time consuming and attention devouring, often taking most of their mornings during the session. The legislative session usually ends around two weeks after the committee has finished its work, which is about how long the budgets take to pass through action on the floors.

This has worked pretty well for a very long time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, or that legislative leaders shouldn’t try. Other states use various approaches and for the most part all are able to make them work too.

But if you’re going to change the system, be careful. Budget-setting for a state government is complex and sometimes emotional and highly political, and the process should be well understood and broadly accepted. And there should be no hint of under-the-table philosophical agendas.

The new process for this session, promoted by House Speaker Mike Moyle and adopted by the JFAC co-chairs, Senator Scott Grow and Representative Wendy Horman, calls for fracturing the process. It begins with passing, in advance of any hearings, a “bare-bones” budget for everyone – just enough, presumably, to keep the lights on – and then, after a much shorter public hearing process (fewer public statements from agency advocates, more decisions behind closed doors), considering what should be added to (or maybe subtracted from) the bare bones. This back-and-forth approach tends to remove things from their context.

The initial “bare bones” budgets this session were passed by JFAC shortly after the start of the session, in a single two and a half-hour session on January 16. All 15 committee Republicans voted in favor, and the five Democrats voted against. The nays were vocal about it. Senator Janie Ward-Engelking, for example, said “We received these budgets on Friday and are being asked to vote on them on Tuesday, to set the entire budget for the state in the second week of the session before we even have a change in employee compensation recommendation in place, before we have the Millennium Fund recommendation in place.” In other words, a budget was being passed before committee members even had the relevant information for making even any broad-brush decisions.

Apparently,  many of the committee’s Republicans apparently started having second thoughts, too.

On February 2, a dozen JFAC members – a majority, most Republicans but including Democrats – decided they wanted to pass their own budgets, after gathering more information to hand. Representative Britt Raybould explained some of that: “The budget that was outlined at the beginning of the year did not actually reflect all of the maintenance line items … In most instances it left out nondiscretionary, it left out replacement items and other what you think of as sort of regular and expected fund adjustments.”

That means two entirely different and conflicting budgets are wandering around the legislature, with lawmakers concerned about what might happen if multiple budgets wind up being passed.

There isn’t anything fatal about this. In the worst case, if the legislature were to actually pass more than one conflicting budget (they’ll say it couldn’t happen, and it’s unlikely, but never say never) the governor could veto one; or, a normal rule of legislative construction might mean that the last one passed takes precedence.

But the whole new system does seem to be resulting in more heat and less light when it comes to deciding how the state’s dollars should be sent.

Which may be fine with some people, ideology depending. But Idahoans simply hoping for a smoothly functioning government are likely to have their doubts.

 

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