The way legislators craft the state's budget, which has evolved into secret meetings involving only a handful of key fiscal negotiators, should be more open so citizens and other lawmakers have a better understanding what's in the money bill, legislative leaders say.
“There is room for improvement as far as the budget process is concerned,” House Speaker Kris Steele said. “The trick is going to be to make sure that all the entities involved — the House, the Senate and the governor's office — are willing to collectively reform and bring about more transparency.”
“We can always be more open in the process,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman. “We're certainly open to suggestions and always looking at better ways to ... do business.
“It's a very large budget and it's hard to micromanage every little expenditure,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa. “We try to be open and we don't try to hide anything. It comes down to a point that you've got to get the House, Senate and the governor's office all in agreement.”
Opening up budget talks also would reduce citizens finding surprise allocations to various groups that aren't listed in this fiscal year's 49-page general appropriations bill that lists the funding levels for each state agency.
But the listing is just lump sums, and specific allocations aren't spelled out in the document.
A conservative think tank is questioning the necessity of allocating about $2.1 million from the state's $6.8 billion budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1.
Jonathan Small, fiscal policy director for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said the allocations are not for essential services and questioned whether they should receive any state funds. Small's group earlier this year pointed out about $2 billion in potential savings in state government expenditures over the next three years; some of those proposals, such as defunding state appropriations to the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority and charging admission at state parks were considered and rejected by lawmakers.
“Definitely there is the issue of spending on noncore functions which wasn't addressed, but what we've seen which is even a greater concern is the lack of transparency and a broken budget process,” Small said. “It's one thing to spend money on things that don't appear to be our core services; it's another thing when individual lawmakers are directing those sums and many times lawmakers don't even have an idea of what they're voting on.”
David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute which analyzes state finances, said the budget process “definitely can and should be more open.”
“Particularly in recent years, the only appropriation information is a lump sum in a general appropriations bill,” said Blatt, whose organization supports adequate, fair and fiscally responsible funding of public services. “Previously, there used to be at least agency-specific budget bills which often didn't provide full information but at least provided some information on line item appropriations the Legislature was directing.
“It's very hard for anybody to find out what money is intended for and you do end up having to piece together information from spreadsheets that get circulated or even less transparent means,” he said. “If there's legislative direction, then the Legislature should spell that out in bills that go through and get passed.”
The state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department received $27.6 million from legislators, a $2 million bump over last year, but that $2 million is to go to the Oklahoma Youth Expo junior livestock show in Oklahoma City. The state Tourism and Recreation Department was told that of its $21.8 million budget, $40,000 should be passed through to the Jenks Aquarium and $25,000 should be given to each the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City and to the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain.
Small said the events receiving the money may be worthwhile, but the discussion on why they received the money should have been held in the open.
“What we're finding is when we talk to citizens is that they're surprised about the funds that are going to those things and they don't see those areas as a core function of government,” he said. “It's not the issue of the entity that's involved or what they might bring or not bring to the community, again it's just the process and the way things are done.”
Steele, R-Shawnee, said he and Rep. Earl Sears, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, provided more details to House GOP members during caucus meetings. Steele said he talked with House Democratic leaders and Sears, R-Bartlesville, also talked to members of the Democratic House caucus.
“Before any votes were taken, even in committee, we would give that information to our caucus,” Steele said. “They would be hard pressed to say that they didn't have the adequate information when it came time to vote if they participated in the caucus meetings and the committee meetings.”
But Steele acknowledged those caucus meetings are closed to the public.
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.
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.