In October, 101 days after the deadline, Governor Ed Rendell finally signed a state budget for Pennsylvania . For over a decade, this writer has advanced several ideas on the state budget process in the state legislature that might make our state budget more expressive of not only the ideas of many of our state legislators, but also more representative of the thinking of the general public. Only a handful of legislative leaders are involved in the formulation of budgets, and legislative staff appear to exercise an inordinate amount of influence in the process. Pennsylvania ‘s budgetary process has generated frustration among the rank-and-file members of the General Assembly as well as the general public, who feel they have little input into the formulation of the state’s priorities.
Several developments have ensured that state budgeting has been more difficult over the past 15 years than tended to be the case prior to this time: slow economic growth, increased federal mandates coupled with diminishing levels of federal aid, an aging population, and exploding costs in many areas of the state budget. The Legislature’s budget processes must not only be effective, but it must also reflect public sentiment and be open to public scrutiny. In order to reform budget-making procedures to realize this goal, the Legislature should consider a few improvements:
Statewide budget hearings
Establishing a required series of annual, statewide budget hearings to solicit citizen opinion would broaden public interest in legislative budget process.
Rotating the chairmanships of both the majority and minority appropriations and finance committees would open the budgetary process to more members.
Timing budget requests
Transmitting agency budget requests simultaneously to the appropriations committees and the governor’s budget office would provide the General Assembly with more time to examine state programs and their budgetary needs. Currently, the lawmakers examine the budget only after the executive branch submits the budget to the Legislature.
Currently, legislative leaders officially confer on a state budget during the second week of June. If this process were completed by mid-May, there would be more time to formulate a budget and reduce the likelihood of budget impasses.
A role for subcommittees
The current budgetary process is closed to input from all but a handful of legislative leaders. Expanding the House and Senate appropriations committees would open the budgeting process to more members and reduce members’ reliance on staff. Increasing member expertise in numerous areas is invaluable in developing a truly representative and accountable legislature.
Requiring the governor to testify for his executive branch agencies’ appropriation requests during some portion of budget hearings would increase both the executive’s accountability and dialogue between the governor and General Assembly.
For the same reasons, the Legislature might establish a regular "Question Period" for the governor. This would also allow legislators to check on the trend of revenues and expenditures throughout the entire year with the chief executive, which could lead to improvements in a program evaluation.
Department budget cycles
Creating a biennial budget for minor departments while maintaining an annual budget cycle for major departments. Education as well as other areas such as environmental resources, transportation, and public welfare are all examples of other topics that might benefit.
Requiring a "supermajority" for budget approval in the General Assembly, particularly for budgets requiring significant tax and expenditure increases, would not permit the legislative leadership to ignore rank and file members during the budgetary process. This procedure is already used in Arkansas (where a three-quarters vote is necessary to approve the budget), California (two-thirds), and Nebraska (three fifths).
Adopting a new format for the state budget that replaces the current incremental, line-item approach would be useful for program management.
Taxpayer Bill of Rights
Amending the state Constitution to require voter approval of a budget or a tax increase in excess of the rate of inflation and population growth. Further, the state could adopt a procedure that requires all surplus funds to be used for tax relief.
All these proposals have been used successfully in various other legislative bodies. If legislative budget reform is to occur, however, legislatures must have the will to re-access existing programs, many of which have strong ties to interest groups. While the reforms discussed here are not a panacea, any number of them applied together would improve the legislative budget process to the benefit of all state residents.
(Dr. Charles E. Greenawalt II is the Senior Fellow for the Susquehanna Valley Center )