We are headed into budget season in the legislature – the part of the legislative cycle that is hardest to manage in an orderly and transparent way. Proposed amendments to the budget bill often raise controversial and complex policy issues that deserve more consideration than they can receive in the context of the hectic budget process.
Good legislation takes time – time to understand problems, time to identify alternative solutions, time to consult other legislators, time to seek public input, time to build bridges with opponents, time to sort through complex details.
That work normally gets done through the committee process. Bills are filed at the start of each two-year session and referred to appropriate joint committees for review and refinement. The committees include members of both branches.
If a bill is voted out of committee, then it is released for amendment, debate and passage in the House and Senate. The bill versions as amended in each branch typically differ. For major bills, differences are usually resolved by a conference committee of six legislators, three from each branch.
The state budget is just another bill, but it is handled in a different way. Each branch has its own Ways and Means Committee. The Governor starts the process by filing a draft budget every year in January, but the Ways and Means Committees then each develop their own draft budgets and release those drafts to their respective branches for amendment, debate and passage.
The House does its budget in the last week of April and the Senate does its budget in the week before Memorial day. The House and the Senate each consider approximately 1000 amendments to the budget. Then conference negotiators for the two branches then have about a month to work out all the differences between the draft budgets.
Generally, amendments to a proposed bill must relate to the subject matter of the bill. A legislator cannot add an amendment pertaining to the use of cell phones to a bill about drug prices. However, because the budget touches more or less everything in state government, it is hard to rule any amendment out of scope.
As a result, virtually any other bill by can be added to the budget bill as an amendment. There is no harm to this when the added bill is non-controversial. The harm comes when controversial or especially complex legislation is raised out-of-the-blue as a budget amendment. Then legislators are compelled to vote without preparation or the opportunity to engage in responsible negotiation about critical details of the issue.
Nor can the necessary vetting and consensus development occur through the closed-door conference process. Only six legislators are at the conference table and they cannot consult with stakeholders. From a transparency and participation perspective, adding complex proposals to the budget is the worst way to get them sorted out.
Further, there are only so many hours during which the conferees can engage with each other. Budget conferees have enough talking to do about the budget itself and cannot be expected to chew through other major policy problems. Overloading the budget negotiators with complex collateral proposals can result in a late budget with all the uncertainty that creates. And it rarely generates the hoped-for results: Complex collateral proposals usually end up getting dropped from conference reports.
There are times when – as a result of logistical or political dynamics — there is no other choice but to shove a complex issue into a budget amendment. But the more I understand the work necessary to get legislation right, the more I appreciate the value of keeping the budget process as clean and simple as possible.
That means I have become increasingly willing to vote against complex budget amendments even when I passionately support their intentions.