More openness sought in Oklahoma's budget process

Oklahoma legislative leaders say there is room for improvement. The state's budget now is negotiated in secret by leaders with the House, Senate and the governor's office, leaving most lawmakers and citizens in the dark.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: August 20, 2012
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But Steele acknowledged those caucus meetings are closed to the public.

Late deal

The budget deal was completed in the last week of this year's session, and the House of Representatives failed to pass the budget bill by four votes when it was presented on the floor the second-to-last day of the session.

At least two members voted against it because they didn't like the $2 million going to the Youth Expo, but changed their minds after learning the money came from special accounts with excess money and not from the state's fund that pays operating costs of state government.

They also said they were concerned about the cost of a special session, which would have been necessary without passage of the state budget. The measure was brought up for a second vote three hours later and it received 52 votes, one more than the minimum required for passage.

Lawmakers, whose session begins the first Monday in February, hold budget hearings in January. Lawmakers are given an estimate in December on how much money is available for them to appropriate; the final amount of available money is determined in mid-February. Lawmakers must adjourn by the last Friday in May.

Steele, who can't seek re-election because of 12-year legislative term limits, said lawmakers should begin discussion on the budget earlier and it would be helpful to get more of the 149 lawmakers involved.

“You could have more input and more scrutiny,” he said. “That would be a very positive thing.”

Bingman said he is encouraging his budget subcommittee chairmen to begin gathering information on their agencies.

“It's never too early to start working on next year's budget,” he said. “During the summer it's a good time to go take some tours of some of these agencies and you learn a lot on how they operate.”

Agencies are to submit their budget requests by Oct. 1, and budget subcommittees could start reviewing those in November, Bingman said.

Small compliments lawmakers for opening up state government the past couple years. The House two years ago changed the conference committee process to require actual meetings and public votes on conference committee reports; it also ended the practice of voting on “shell” appropriation bills that contained no actual budget numbers. All budget committee votes in the House and Senate now are recorded votes.

“It's going to benefit the state if future legislatures can build upon the reforms that we've been able to act,” Steele said.

Share the power

Small suggests legislative leaders give more power to budget subcommittees. At one time budget subcommittees were given allocation amounts to the agencies under their supervision and came up with proposed spending amounts for each agency.

Blatt said those meetings were never public and there were no agendas posted, but at least more lawmakers were involved.

“Now a general appropriations bill emerges out of meetings with five men in a room,” he said. “It gets put on their (legislators) desks and the bill is through the Legislature in two to three days and really nobody knows … what's in the bill.”

Blatt said it may be time for lawmakers to consider the idea of them dealing strictly with the budget during one session and taking up strictly policy issues the next session. Lawmakers would approve a two-year budget, and make adjustments as needed.

“That proposal deserves consideration,” he said. “We would have much more participation, much more transparency and much more accountability.

“Almost every year now the budget agreement comes in the final two or three weeks of session, sometimes the final days of session,” Blatt said. “Everybody is working under a very tight, tense deadline to finish up and then go home.”

Small said it would help if lawmakers would comply with a 2003 law that set April 1 as the deadline to come up with a budget for public schools. There's no penalty for legislators if the deadline is missed.

The Fund Education First Act, a self-imposed statute proposed by Republicans and adopted in 2003, has been met only once, in 2004.

Change proposed

The state constitution prohibits legislators from passing revenue-raising bills in the last week of the session. Small said it would be good for lawmakers to pass a measure that would require the budget to be presented to lawmakers before the last week of session, which would give lawmakers and citizens at least five legislative days to review it.

“That would help cut out a lot of the disdain that's felt by the budgets that are passed,” he said.



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