Pluses and Minuses during the First Week of JFC Voting
Finance Committee Shows Its Independence but only Removes 14 of the 49 Non-fiscal Measures from Budget
As the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) took its first votes on the budget bill last week, there were some encouraging signs, as well as some disappointing developments.
The most encouraging thing was simply that the committee showed a willingness to think independently and not rubber stamp everything proposed by the Governor. In light of the large number of controversial fiscal and policy changes in the budget, I’m relieved that the early indications are that the JFC members in both parties are willing to exercise their own judgment about the Governor’s proposals.
More specifically, I was very happy to see the committee vote to preserve several independent government entities that help make or influence policy and that the budget bill proposed to eliminate. A theme in this budget that has gotten relatively little attention is that the Governor has recommended abolishing or weakening numerous independent boards or advisory councils, thereby weakening the role of stakeholders and ordinary citizens in guiding the administration of state programs.
In some cases the budget preserves the entity in question but makes it essentially superfluous by circumventing its advisory role. To name just a few of the many examples of that in the budget are substantial policy changes that circumvent the traditional role of the advisory groups that in the past have provided nonpartisan expertise and continuity in the areas of unemployment insurance, workers compensation and long-term care. Excluding those entities and others like them from any role in making policy changes consolidates power, politicizes decision-making, and will ultimately make state policies far more volatile as the political winds change.
Although the specific panels or advisory groups preserved last Wednesday – the Natural Resources Board, the DATCP Board, and the Judicial Council – haven’t been high on my long list of concerns about the budget, I think the decisions to preserve them are positive signs that JFC members understand the importance of these sorts of independent panels and don’t feel compelled to simply follow the Governor’s recommendations.
On the other hand, it’s extremely disappointing that the committee removed only 14 of the 49 parts of the budget that the Fiscal Bureau categorized as non-fiscal policy. That’s unfortunate because budget bills contain so many different fiscal decisions in need of careful scrutiny that it’s impossible for other extraneous matters to receive the attention they should get from the Finance Committee and from the general public. And using a process that precludes adequate public debate is all the more distressing when the policy changes in question have bypassed the advisory councils that have long been responsible for screening those sorts of policy matters.