More Transparency Needed in State Budgeting – Hartford Courant

0

Last April, the Governor and Legislative Majority announced a $24.2 billion investment budget agreement which replaced the existing budget for the current fiscal year (FY 23). The budget passed last year for FY23 was $878.2 million higher than the FY22 budget. The new budget added $574.4 million in appropriations, resulting in appropriations totals $1.45 billion (6.4%) higher than FY22. Connecticut has a two-year budget requirement reinstated in 1991 but still operates primarily with annual budgets.

Reasonable people may disagree about the appropriate size and content of a budget and fiscal package, but the non-transparency of such budget arrangements should be rejected by anyone interested in good government. These agreements are negotiated in secret by the main legislative leaders, the governor and a few staff members. This year’s agreement was a huge bill that included spending, taxes, revenues, bonding and implementation language that was 739 pages. Due to the complexity, opacity, political horse-trading and lack of authorized scrutiny, no one fully understands the content of these bills, including those actually negotiating them.

The title of this year’s bill: “An Act to adjust the State budget for the biennium ending on June 30, 2023, concerning provisions relating to revenue, construction of schools and other items for executing the state budget and authorizing and adjusting government obligations” is imprecise at best because it was full of items that have nothing to do with executing the budget and everything to do with the advantage of important legislators, lobbyists or privileged interest groups. The title of the bill should end with “and other provisions”, although “and lots of other political things” would be more appropriate.

Granted, these budget packages have a lot of pork, but there are plenty of self-serving financial and legal benefits for special interest groups that simply support the re-election of a lawmaker with campaign aid and donations, and have it probably already done.

There are also “rats”, mysterious objects slipped into the bills during the last days of session when the attention of MPs is sought. The stereotypical rat is designed to slip under the radar. The language is usually drafted narrowly so that the advantage it confers accrues almost exclusively to one or a few people or organizations.

Opinion

Opinion

Weekly

Perspective on the biggest stories of the week from the Current Opinion page

Bills of this size would take weeks to fully understand, but these bills are left to lawmakers for a vote the same day or the next day. The legislative majority receives a brief pink briefing beforehand. The minority party gets much less – why bother since they can’t influence the outcome? Meanwhile, Capitol insiders are able to routinely get briefings in front of numerous lawmakers.

The public hastily receives news that reports the talking points on both sides. The majority say their budget package is ideal for “working families” etc., while the minority claim the opposite. This happens every year because: 1) the legislature lacks the discipline to set deadlines (while passing laws that contain deadlines and penalties for the public); and 2) it is done intentionally to limit light on the content.

Another way to prevent proper understanding of money bills is to prohibit the availability of information. The Governor’s Budget Proposal, for example, which is released every February (no one takes biennial budget requirements seriously), comes with copious amounts of book-sized information. detail including a economic report and one three year report.

The Credit Committee budget, which is voted out of committee every April or May, also contains large amounts of detail prepared by the nonpartisan budget office of the legislature. This detail is provided for these two budget proposals, even though these are still dead on arrival pending the final budget negotiation process. It is impossible to understand the budget without this information since the finance bills contain lump sum levels of appropriations by agency and by account without any explanation. It’s like buying a book and only having the table of contents.

Rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties regularly complain about this rush-vote requirement. Democrats complain about being forced to vote for packages they might not like and can’t really understand with the lack of information. Republicans refuse to be completely excluded. Over the years, when presented with the opportunity to prepare documents for legislative members before a vote, legislative leadership has, well, waned.

This system stems from an uncontrolled concentration of power. This can be easily changed if there was the will to do so.

Alan Calandro is an unaffiliated voter and former director of Connecticut’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Analysis Office. He lives in Burlington.

Share.

Comments are closed.