Wednesday, April 25, 2007

State budgets as policy documents

As Rep. Frank Lasee notes this week, Wisconsin's biennial budget, as proposed by the Governor, included several substantive policy provisions. Now that the budget is in the hands of the legislature's Joint Finance Committee, other substantive provisions could be added. Rep. Lasee points out correctly that:

"Governors (or legislators) who want bills to pass without having them considered individually amend them to the budget bill. Once it is under the umbrella of the budget bill (“under the Christmas tree” as some people call it), it is very difficult to get it removed. People are generally more worried about the big ticket items in the budget and let the minor amendments pass without as much review."
Including substantive policy in the budget makes it nearly impossible for the proposed policy to receive its own public hearing for debate of its merits. Did you know Milwaukee's private school voucher program was created via the state budget process? When searching the legislative history of that program as research for our book, we were amazed to discover that no public hearing was held on the topic of private school vouchers.

But not every state operates in this manner. Colorado, for instance, has a constitutional requirement that the "long bill" (as their budget bill is known) contain only appropriations and no substantive law or policy. In addition, the long bill is drafted by the nonpartisan staff of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee, which makes it easier to keep substantive policy proposals out. (Note, also, that the JBC receives a draft budget from the governor, but is under no obligation to use it as a starting point.)

Thus, in Colorado and other similar states, proposed policies are debated on their own merits and the resulting appropriations are made within an appropriations bill. Importantly, the Colorado constitution also forbids appropriations bills from containing more than one subject, which further prevents the occurrence of Wisconsin-style political slights-of-hand.

Lasee's suggested solution to Wisconsin's partisan budgeting process is for his colleagues simply not to pass a his words, "If we cannot pass a budget we would be proud to take back to the constituents that elected us, we should not pass a budget at all." Colorado's budget process isn't without problems (transparency being one) but it illustrates a different, more productive, way of approaching the problem Rep. Lasee points out.

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