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Saturday, July 20th, 2019Last Update: Tuesday, May 7th, 2019 11:03:32 AM

The Senate Transparency Conundrum

By: Jason Murphey

Regular readers of the state's appropriations bill were greeted by something new as they opened this year's version of the venerable legislation.

Historically, the bill has contained a section-by-section narrative detailing the assignment, or transfer, of dollars to the many government agencies and programs. This document, often confused with the state budget, assigns about 7 billion of the approximate 17.5 billion spent by state government.

In reality, only about 30% of state government spending goes through the legislative process. What about the other 10 billion of spend? A majority comes from the federal government and goes directly to state agencies where it is spent outside the constraints of legislative review. Millions more originate from the regulation and licensing by the many non-appropriated state agencies. These agencies are not subject to the appropriations processes; they constitute the massive hidden layer of state government.

Until very recently, legislators needed to review the state's annual Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) in order to analyze all state government spend. The CAFR contains a omnibus overview of state finance; however, no significant part of the legislative process incorporates this document. In fact, in my experience, a majority of lawmakers either do not realize this document exists, or rarely provide it with more than a cursory review.

This year, the state Senate negotiated for the right to incorporate financial details normally found in the CAFR into the appropriations document.

For the first time, the "state budget" actually provides an omnibus accounting of most state finance. This action elevates the importance of the state's hidden spending in the minds of lawmakers; it represents the latest in a series of efforts by the Senate to enhance legislative purview of the billions of spend not previously accounted for by the legislative process.

In 2012, both the Senate and House formed special appropriations committees designed to provide purview over the non-appropriated agencies as the first important step in putting the Legislature into its role as guardian of taxpayer dollars. While the House later eliminated its appropriations committee, the Senate has stayed true to this vision and successfully negotiated for and won the right to incorporate most state finances within the "state budget."

That said, it's important to qualify this observation by noting that the Senate waived the important budget transparency rules which would have given legislators, the press, and the public time to review this year's budget before it received a vote in the House.

This unfortunate action significantly undermines the Senate's ability to advance a budget transparency narrative, a narrative which would otherwise be spot on. The Senate won the right to publish a transparent budget while simultaneously waiving the very rules which allow for public review of the budget prior to a vote.

This transparency conundrum sends a mixed message to the public; however, the incorporation of the comprehensive financial data does represent one of the few significant and meaningful positives from this year's state budget process.

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