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Avoiding wasted effort in state budget process

April 27, 2001

Avoiding wasted effort in state budget process



Maybe it's just a growing unwillingness to spend their time on efforts that don't accomplish anything, but this year lawmakers from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia have all expressed problems with the way their state budgets are put together. Looking across state lines may provide each of them with some ideas for their reform efforts.

The most recent gripes surfaced in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania House passed a $20.8 million budget this week, a budget featuring hundreds of changes from the document originally submitted by Gov. Tom Ridge.

But because the budget will then go to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members and gubernatorial staffers, the 266 changes are likely to be voided, meaning that a whole lot of time, efforts and money - for things like printing costs and staff time - has been wasted.

In West Virginia, after some lawmakers complained that the budget negotiations that followed the legislative session often had nothing to do with the debate during the session, a judge ruled that items included in the post-session "budget digest" must at least be brought up during the session.

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In Maryland, lawmakers frustrated by the governor's near-total control of the budget are proposing a constitutional amendment to reduce that power. It would, among other things, keep lawmakers from passing a budget with a bottom line bigger than the governor's budget. In Pennsylvania's budget debate, a similar rule prevailed.

It's a rule that makes sense; lawmakers can rearrange the furniture, fiscally speaking, but not add to governor's original package. What doesn't make sense is the idea that a budget item can be debated and passed on the floor, only to be wiped out in conference.

One possible answer might be to prevent conference committees from deleting certain items if they were passed by a two-thirds majority. That way, lawmakers would know in advance that to ensure passage of a certain item, they'd have to work that much harder. The compensation for that hard work would be that once it was done, no committee could undo it.

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