The Legislature has two primary duties each year. The first is to create and balance a state budget and the second is to consider matters of public policy. We begin each year with a focus on the “base budget.” This is actually a series of budgets for each of the various departments that contains the basic funding for each area. Later in the session we appropriate any surplus revenues to new programs or growth in programs. This session, we decided it was time to give the base budgets a deeper review. All standing committees (the committees that review policy bills rather than budget bills) were postponed until Week 2 and double appropriations hearings were booked for each appropriations committee.
This gave each appropriations committee more time to dig into budgets and ask important questions about funding levels, whether programs are properly a-lined and producing the goals intended, and to ensure the funding choices are still relevant. After some very long meetings and pouring over spreadsheets, this exercise proved profitable as we discovered some pockets of funds that hadn’t been used or programs that were obsolete or duplicated in another department. The appropriations committees were then able to re-appropriate these funds to other needs inside the budget.
It can be a risky thing to spend so much time on just one part of our legislative responsibilities. Our State has one of the shortest annual sessions at just 45-calendar days. We have learned how to work within this timeline by keeping a rigid schedule of committee meetings and budget hearings. To change that schedule and spend more time on budget hearings means less time for policy bills and debate. Both budget and policy are equally important so balancing the time component can be difficult. Toward that end, I’m particularly pleased with a bill, HJR10 Joint Resolution on a Long-Term Planning Conference, that would enable the Legislature to hold a long-term planning study session every 2 years outside of our normal 45-day general session. The purpose will be to focus on fiscal trends and the longer term economic and demographic needs of the State. Our 45-day session often doesn’t allow for this type of discussion or review. Instead, we are working to pass a budget and consider all the bills before the clocks strikes midnight on the final day.
Information is delivered and digested quickly in-session. While we hope we are making the best decisions for the good of the state, there often isn’t time to bring in experts, have lengthy discussions or model projections. This planning conference would focus on long-range planning so we can discuss and set goals. Then we can enter the next session looking at specific programs or policies for education, transportation, or tax reform that appropriately frame the issue in terms of how it helps us reach our goals and impacts long-term planning.
I hope this bill and the deeper review of the base budget this year will provide the public with greater budget transparency and confidence while at the same time helping legislators do both their policy and budgeting jobs better by having the right tools and information available.