This past Friday, the Rhode Island House Finance Committee voted to send a $7.7 billion budget to the floor for a vote. This vote occurred three hours after the full budget was presented to the committee. Many committee members had no idea what was in the budget until it was presented for a vote.
What is most remarkable about the budgeting process is not that the members of this committee could digest and understand the budget in this short amount of time. What is amazing is that the contents of the budget remained secret until revealed to the committee.
The budgeting process guarantees that poorly reviewed budgets are enacted into law.
A budget begins with the Governor’s office putting together a first draft, expending months of effort. The Executive branch best understands the needs and inner workings of the different departments of state.
The Governor’s budget is submitted to the Legislative branch of government as a bill. This bill is referred to the Finance Committees of both legislative chambers. Public hearings are held on the different aspects of the Governor’s bill, and at this point the wheels fall off the process, never to be put back on.
I have attended multiple House Finance Committee hearings this year. In many cases, I testified to mostly empty chairs as members of the House Finance Committee had other things to do than take public testimony. And I understand why committee members are not overly anxious to spend their valuable time taking public testimony on the Governor’s proposed budget. What the Governor proposes has little bearing on the final budget passed by the committee.
Legislative leadership and certain members of the House Finance Committee work behind the scenes on the ‘real’ budget. At first glance, this year’s ‘real’ budget bears little resemblance to the Governor’s initial offering (not a bad thing – in my humble opinion).
The problem with this process as described so far is that the public (and members of the Finance Committee) are given no ability to provide input on the ‘real’ budget. The ‘real’ budget is dropped on the committee and the public late in the day on a Friday – the day of the week that minimizes the amount of scrutiny applied by committee members, watchdogs and the press. The secrecy with which this budget is put together disenfranchises the tax payer, while providing those with access the ability to directly influence what goes into and stays out of the final budget.
Once passed by the House Finance Committee, members of the legislature and the public have one week in which to process, digest and comment on the newly proposed budget. At the end of the week, it is expected that the budget will be voted on and passed by both legislative chambers. One week to understand the inner workings of a $7.7 billion budget. Is it any wonder that Rhode Island’s finances are such a mess?!?!
Once approved by both chambers, the Governor can sign, veto or ignore the Legislature’s budget. A vetoed budget will surely be overridden by our unbalanced legislature, and an ignored budget becomes law without the Governor’s signature.
The Governor is virtually powerless to do anything about the Legislature’s budget. This can and should be addressed by providing the Governor with a line item veto – a tool that most other States provide to their chief executives. A line item veto provides the Governor with badly needed negotiating leverage. This is the only way to begin making the ‘real’ budgeting process more transparent and open to those who pay the bills – the taxpaying public.
I find it galling that Rhode Island’s budget is ginned up in secret with no accountability in the process in which it is created. It is indefensible that our legislative leadership effectively asks the taxpayers to ‘trust them’ when so many of our previous budgets were works of fiction that have placed our entire state at risk of financial ruin. A carefully constructed and well considered budget should be the key tool to help us fix what is broken in our state – but our budgeting process guarantees that the public will never know what considerations went into the final budget and no time is provided for deep analysis of the impact of the proposed budget.
It is very unlikely that Rhode Island can turn our ship of state around while the steering of the ship is a bit like the SS Minnow caught in a storm on the TV show Gilligan’s Island. Instead of blindly spinning the wheel and hoping for the best, let’s try deeply vetting a budget before enacting it into law.
Only significant public pressure on legislative leadership can bring about this desperately needed change.