Think about the means by which a business prepares its budget. Each business unit submits its operational plans and budget for the next year to management. Unit leaders must document and defend their rationale for each request. The budget is approved through due process which balances the needs of each business unit. Following approval, the business unit undergoes monthly or quarterly budget reviews to track performance. As the year comes to an end, this purview provides a foremost tool for gauging the performance of unit managers.
Oklahomans are right to expect these private-sector best practices to be replicated in state government. Without this or a similar criteria-based system, how can lawmakers justify their decision to fund or not fund any given function of government? How can the performance of an agency or the agency directors be assessed? With no ongoing review, isn’t it impossible to know if the agency is following through with its stated goals?
The method for developing the state budget lacks much-needed due process such as public hearings, open committee votes, meaningful public interviews with and testimony from agency officials, and a deliberative, open process of consideration which contains enough temporal intervals to give lawmakers time to deliberate with the input of the public.
For the most part, the budget is developed behind closed doors with few lawmakers having meaningful input and with little public purview before a final vote.
Without this due process, the door is opened for politics-based appropriating which allocates money based on the political power of those who don’t mind leveraging their political clout behind the scenes and away from public purview.
Here are just a couple of examples.
I once saw this bad system provide a two million dollar special interest appropriation to a non-governmental group which has the influence to steal their chunk of the public largess. By the time the public became aware of this raid, it was too late; the budget was on the House floor for a vote and was unfortunately signed by the Governor soon thereafter. With this vote, the Legislature and the Governor showed their willingness to give away two million of your taxpayer dollars to a private organization. Had the public had more time to realize the implications of this vote, I can’t help but believe the giveaway would have never happened.
Likewise, I have seen the budget used as an apparent retaliation tool by a prominent and powerful lawmaker who, in my view, sought to punish an agency because of a personality conflict with an agency head. I can recall no evidence that this retaliation was based on the budget needs or lack of need of that agency. From my vantage point, I simply observed that the agency head was an enemy of a powerful lawmaker who had become skilled at the art of behind-the-scenes maneuvering which has become a defining characteristic of the current budget process.
A public, transparent, deliberative budget-creation process would make these types of abuses much rarer. It would provide a formalized process to those of us who want to make government less-costly, more efficient and continually accountable for its use of your hard-earned money.