The pressure gets tougher and the wheeling and dealing more outrageous as the legislative session winds to a close. However, the shenanigans on Sunday with the sprawling $9.6 billion state budget in the Senate need to halt.
Even people who voted for the budget were somewhat appalled.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz vowed this year will be the last time a budget comes together in such a haphazard fashion. Unfortunately, next year isn’t soon enough.
A budget document should not be a way to further policy goals that fail to garner wide support elsewhere. Proposals that go through the admittedly laborious committee process and floor votes in both chambers are vetted.
A few lines of text in a budget, added at the last committee before a floor vote, do not receive similar scrutiny. Neither do the governor’s approval of budget additions in return for increasing spending on programs she felt were shortchanged. Because of the different additions, state spending next fiscal year will rise about 14%, or by a billion dollars. That’s an increase from the already whopping 12% increase in the original Legislative Finance Committee proposal.
That earlier budget, by the way, prudently had set aside nearly $1 billion to go to the Severance Tax Permanent Fund.
The fund basically is a savings account for the date when oil and gas revenues fall and funds coming in are less robust.
Because make no mistake, that day is coming. And perhaps soon.
As it is, Muñoz said bluntly that current spending levels are unsustainable, with an increase in recurring expenses of around 30% over the past three years.
We have not been opposed to using these historic budgets to meet the many pressing needs of this state, whether in educating children, protecting the environment, paying decent wages to state workers or hiring more police officers to patrol the streets.
But we also have cautioned much of the surplus should be spent on one-time investments rather than recurring expenses. Smart spending means the state won’t have to cut expenses as drastically when times are hard again.
Given inflation, interest rate increases and the resulting stress on banks we see happening right now, it’s not unimaginable to predict trouble just around the corner. The drunken sailor, spending so happily today, could be unable to buy a drink just a few months from now.
Vetting spending proposals, as opposed to dropping them in after the budget document is 98% completed, is more important than ever.
On Sunday, necessary scrutiny was neglected. The Senate returned the budget to the Finance Committee for tinkering after the committee already had approved it. The result? A larded-up final House Bill 2 was approved on a 25-16 vote, with Democratic Sen. Shannon Pinto of Tohatchi joining Republicans in voting no.
No more, Muñoz said.
“This is the last year we’re going to do language this way, and this is the last year we’re going to do budget this way,” he said. “If people want to put money in the budget on the backside in different sections, they’re going to have to run a bill.”
Brave words, but too late. Budgeting is a process, with each step a check and balance. Lose the checks, the balance falls off and a state squanders its surplus. That’s not the right path.
What’s worse is that everyone in the Roundhouse knows better.