With bud­get, ac­count­abil­ity worth more than pro­ce­dure

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

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.

RICK MCKEE/THE AU­GUSTA (GA.) CHRONICLE

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