On April 27 the Governor and his fellow Democrats in the legislature announced that they reached a budget deal for fiscal year 2022-2023. A vote is scheduled, as of this writing, for Monday.
As usual there were the press releases and public responses about all the great things in the budget deal from the majority party along with the opposite from the minority party. Reasonable people can disagree with what is a good or bad aspect of a particular budget/revenue policy; or on a macro level on the appropriate size of a budget along with the taxation and revenue to pay for it. Your political identification or personal views will drive your opinions (and maybe facts too!) on that.
But the point of this writing is not to criticize or praise the contents of the budget deal. It is to make known to those who are not aware of a corruption of the budget process that is carried out by design year after year. This, despite the protestations and complaints by legislators from the minority party, but also from the majority party.
There are two parts to this corruption. Note: by corruption I do not mean criminal corruption or a crime being committed, I mean a corruption in what should be an open, transparent budget process.
The first relates to the manner in which the final budget deal, codified in an appropriations bill (the spending), a finance bill (the revenue to pay for the spending), and at least one massive “implementer” bill (statutory changes to enable the policies in the spending and revenue bills along with a pile of unrelated provisions inserted on behalf of specific legislators or their beneficiaries) are presented for a vote by the members of the legislature. On rare occasions some of these can be put into one massive bill. You can find more inside information on the little understood budget process here and here.
These bills can be huge, hundreds upon hundreds of pages long. They are essentially dropped on the desks of legislative members shortly before a vote is demanded of them by party leaders without anywhere enough time to understand what they are voting on.
Very often these bills are decided on at the last minute with little time left in the annual constitutional legislative session to pass them with a thorough vetting. If this were rare, it could be forgiven and understandable. But it happens this way every year because for one reason the legislature lacks the discipline to set deadlines for themselves while filing bill after bill with deadlines and requirements for the public.
But lack of discipline, while hardly something to be emulated, is at least not corrupt, or depending on your definition, as corrupt as the intent to keep legislative members from knowing all the details in these massive bills -– which is the other reason.
The governor’s budget, which is released every February, is accompanied by large amounts of detail including an Economic Report and a Three Year Out Year Report prepared by the Governor’s budget office. The Appropriations Committee budget which is voted out of committee every April or May also contains large amounts of detail prepared by the legislature’s nonpartisan budget office (OFA). The information prepared by these offices is a far cry from the actual bills that essentially contain lists of appropriation numbers with account titles from the Governor or the Appropriations Committee. These budgets due, to politics and the evolution of the budget process, have made them dead on arrival. That’s fine.
The problem is that the final budget that was just announced and will be voted on and passed without any of this detail (passage is a foregone conclusion otherwise it would not be brought to a vote to avoid embarrassment by the majority party leaders). Both parties will meet in their Senate and Houses caucuses prior to a hastily announced vote debate schedule, listen to party leadership, be given some summary information that is hardly conducive to a knowledgeable understanding of the details in the budget, and strategize the upcoming debate which will largely focus on the same issues the parties have differed over on spending and taxes for decades.
In past years, the suggestion to party leadership to have OFA prepare the detail it prepares for the Appropriations Committee be made available for the final budget vote fell on deaf ears. At first it was not clear to the naïve why, since such detail would be a massive improvement in the process and would help satisfy the large numbers of legislators who complained about being in the dark, yet were nonetheless required to vote.
But over time it became clear that party leaders did/do not want members to have this information. This was an intentional strategy and was important not only to prevent the minority from having more information to criticize but also to prevent any defections in their own party who might object to parts of the secretly formulated budget between a few legislative leaders and the governor’s staff.
Democrats have controlled the State House and Senate since 1992 (except for a Republican Senate in 1995-1996) and there have been Republican governors from 1995-2011. Although, the governor does not control the legislature or have responsibility for its functioning and exertion of such would be most unwelcome, Republicans in the legislature could have presumably acted in concert with gubernatorial pressure to achieve better information, but that did not occur.
The sad reality is that it appears that Republican leaders have resigned themselves to their minority status and wish to go along to get along in order to get a few scraps thrown into these bills by Democrat leaders for themselves in exchange for a limit on the debate on these bills. Or they are satisfied that a few of their Republican ideas will make it into these bills while forgetting that the Democrats will take the credit since they control all the levers of power.
Yet the paradox is that most of the people that serve in the legislature are good people. George Washington in his farewell address warned Americans about the danger of parties. It is just one reason why I urge people to be unaffiliated to increase their chances of objectivity. It is the party system, not the people, that is the problem. Unfortunately, people, being human, are subject to the corruption of power. Who among us, put in the same position as these leaders, would do otherwise?
Alan Calandro is a former director of the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.