Legislators Should be Embarrassed by the Budget Process, but Not Because the Bill is Late
If you were planning to celebrate the fiscal New Year today, I hope you haven’t let your spirits be dampened by the fact that we don’t have a new budget yet. Although the budget process this year has been extremely disappointing, the failure to finish by July 1 isn’t a serious concern – thanks to a very sensible statute that allows spending to proceed at last year’s level until a new budget is enacted.
The problem with this year’s budget process is the fact that it’s been more than a month since legislators have had an open meeting to debate the budget bill. For the entire month of June, which is when the biennial budget is generally debated on the floor of each house of the legislature (and sometimes also in open caucus meetings), all of the budget debates took place behind closed doors. That’s a problem not only because the public has been shut out of the process for over a month, but also because once we get to see the product of those private meetings there will be little or no time to review and react to the budget changes.
Thankfully, another meeting of the Joint Finance Committee has finally been scheduled (for July 2). Although that’s welcome news, my fear is that just before we start the holiday weekend the committee will unveil a huge package of amendments – some of which may be totally new issues in the bill – and those will be rushed through both houses of the legislature next week before the new proposals can be properly vetted.
A major change in the budget process over the last couple of decades has been a gradual evolution away from vigorous debate in the caucuses and on the floor. Instead, the focus has been on resolving everything in the Joint Finance Committee – mostly in the form of omnibus motions that are developed behind closed doors – and incorporating input from the majority party caucuses into the JFC’s decisions. In other words, the goal in recent years has been to cut deals that will result in a final or almost final budget emerging from the JFC, which is then rubber-stamped on the floor of each house, after shooting down all of the minority party’s amendments.
That last aspect of budget development hasn’t changed much over the years; for as long as I’ve observed the budget process the minority party has largely been excluded – at least when one party controlled both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s office. What has changed is that more of the Finance Committee’s work is being decided behind closed doors, and there’s been more effort to get the majority party in both houses on the same page before the budget bill goes to the floor in either house.
This session the effort to resolve everything within the JFC has gone terribly wrong – with a delay of over a month in any action on the bill. But the delay itself is not the problem; the exclusion of the public is why legislative leaders should be embarrassed about the current budget process.
The flaws in the budget process will become especially obvious if the JFC co-chairs unveil a gigantic “omnibus” motion that inserts brand new issues into the budget, and if legislative leaders rush that package of changes through both houses with minimal opportunity for public review and input. Given that the delays in the budget process are likely to compress the final stages of budget review, Assembly and Senate leaders should do one of two things:
- Unveil their final “omnibus” motion this week, but don’t have a JFC vote on it until next week; or
- Pare back the remaining JFC motions to the essentials, and leave out any non-fiscal policy items.
If legislators want to avoid the embarrassment of a flawed budget process, they shouldn’t be concerned about how much longer it takes to pass a bill. They should worry instead about how much non-fiscal policy they add to the bill and how much they abuse the budget process by passing special interest measures that never get public hearings and meaningful public review.