With budget, accountability worth more than procedure
SOME senators want to mandate a line-item state appropriation process, saying that will increase transparency. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, but it means lawmakers must also be willing to take the heat for budget decisions. That hasn’t happened in the past.
Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, says he and six other Republican senators will file legislation to require the Legislature to approve line-item budgets for agencies appropriated more than $100 million. This would apply to the Department of Education; CareerTech; Department of Transportation; the Oklahoma Health Care Authority; the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Corrections.
Thompson notes line-item appropriations were common until 2009. Subsequently, lawmakers have mostly provided lump-sum appropriations in the name of increasing agencies’ financial flexibility. But that change also allowed lawmakers to evade responsibility for budget decisions and place the blame for cuts on agency leaders.
To cite one example, past appropriations for the Department of Education were divided into four main categories: state aid distributed directly to school districts, funding to run the department itself, textbook funding, and a school activities fund.
The activities fund pays for a range of programs that have at times totaled close to $500 million. One well-known program is a $5,000 bonus given to teachers who obtain National Board certification.
In 2010, the Legislature reduced money going to the activities fund. Former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, a Democrat, and the state Board of Education then redirected funding from a contribution to the teachers’ retirement system and the health benefit allowances for certified and support personnel. That money was instead used for some “activities fund” programs. But it created financial problems for school districts and, more importantly, an attorney general’s opinion concluded Garrett’s actions were illegal.
In 2011, the Legislature again restricted the activities fund appropriation. Garrett’s successor, Republican Janet Barresi, noted the AG opinion and that numerous resolutions from school districts across Oklahoma asked the department not to divert retirement and health benefit funds again. Those two expenditures accounted for $338 million of $400 million lawmakers allotted. Thus, the decision to fund teacher retirement and support staff insurance benefits ultimately led the agency to eliminate funding for the $5,000 bonuses that year.
Garrett and Barresi both drew criticism. But those legislators never specified what they would have cut instead. The political incentive is still for lawmakers to pass the buck and not take ownership of the budget they approve.
And even with line-item appropriations, lawmakers must be willing to do serious budget review. That didn’t happen this year in the House, where lawmakers reportedly had only a single meeting per agency to provide glancing review of an agency’s budget.
Altering budget procedures may do some good.
But the greatest reform would be the involvement of legislators willing to engage in serious budget review and then take direct responsibility for their actions.