Would budget-only sessions create more problems than they solve?

This is an updated and expanded version of a column that originally appeared in the Journal Record.

Photo by eric731 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by eric731 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

No one who observes or participates in developing Oklahoma’s budget is happy with how things work.

Each year, the Legislature approves billions in appropriations to over 65 state agencies with minimal input or oversight. Budget agreements are hammered out by a small group of leaders in the final days of session. This year, a $7.1 billion general appropriations bill received final House approval just eight hours after the bill was filed, leaving most legislators no time to understand what the bill contained.

One major budget reform idea that is gaining growing support is for a constitutional amendment to provide for biannual budget-only sessions. In the version of this proposal authored by Senate President Brian Bingman, SJR 30, the Legislature would meet annually and pass a new budget each session. However, legislation addressing all the other business of government – changes to, say, education testing requirements, criminal sentencing, or occupational licensing – could be considered only in odd-numbered years, unless authorized by a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

SJR 30 Budget-Only Session Proposal

  Odd-Numbered Years Even-Numbered Years
Bills Allowed

Budget Bills

Budget Bills
Non-Budget (Policy) Bills Non-Budget Bills only with
approval of 2/3rds of both chambers

Seven other states – Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wyoming – already hold biannual budget-only sessions, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures official who spoke at a recent legislative hearing.

The main argument for moving to biannual budget-only sessions is that legislators would have more time to delve deeply into the budget through hearings and studies during the legislative session. Pro Tem Bingman has stated: “I think the primary purpose of the Legislature is the appropriation of funding, and this would allow us to definitely do that, to spend a whole session working on the budget.” Limiting consideration of non-budget bills to a single session every two years would also likely lead the Oklahoma legislature to pass fewer bills, an outcome that has appeal both to conservatives who believe in limited government and to Democrats, who would gladly limit the legislative output of a Republican-dominated Legislature.

There are, however, several grounds for serious concern and skepticism about budget-only sessions:

  • As a result of court rulings, federal action, or the unanticipated consequences of previous legislatures, there will regularly be non-budget issues that need urgent attention.  In 2016, for example, the Legislature will need to act on Real ID. Two years ago, the Legislature faced a hard deadline for revising the third grade reading retention bill. The super-majority requirement to consider non-budget issues in even-numbered sessions will certainly give a minority of legislators tremendous bargaining power over which bills can be heard in non-budget years, and it may prevent the Legislature from tackling critical issues in a timely fashion.
  • By limiting consideration of most non-budget bills to every other year, the new system will create great pressure on members to get all their bills passed in the biannual “policy” session. Currently, legislators can take two years to discuss and build consensus on difficult or controversial issues; they can lay bills over knowing they’ll have another chance to take the idea up again next year. With only one four-month session between elections to consider all policy measures, the agenda will get more crowded and more bills are likely to be rushed through with minimal input and scrutiny. In addition, this will leave even less time for thorough consideration of the budget in those years when policy issues can be addressed.
  • Finally, dedicating every-other session only to budget issues still offers no guarantee of a more open, inclusive process. There is nothing in SJR 30 or similar measures that provides any guarantee that legislators would devote the budget-only session to in-depth budget hearings or performance reviews of state agencies and programs. Even  proponents of budget-only sessions acknowledge that ultimately, the budget will still likely be written by a small group of people behind closed doors. Without changes to the rules, we may still see final budget bills unveiled and passed in the final days of session without adequate time for review and debate.

There are numerous reforms to improve the budget process that could be adopted without moving to a biannual budget-only session. These include requiring at least a week between when the final budget bill is filed and when it can be voted on; doing away with the general appropriations bill in favor of a separate budget bill for each agency; and providing for more long-term thinking by developing multi-year revenue forecasts and a current services budget.

The resolution to allow the people to vote on biannual budget-only sessions passed the Senate last year and has the support of the Governor. It could pass this year if the House agrees. Before this happens, there should be much greater consideration given to the far-ranging consequences of such a change and whether moving to budget-only sessions would create more problems than it solves.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

One thought on “Would budget-only sessions create more problems than they solve?

  1. Just a thought… they could always extend the session 4-6 more weeks. Kudos for suggesting that we do away with appropriations and create a more stable fiduciary structure. Personally I feel like all of the “law-givers” we have now need to be run out at the end of some pitch forks. Then we could hold new elections with a streamlined (2/5 of the current seats we have now)cabinet.

    Less legislators = less government. Oh, commissioners gotta go or accept the same pay as teachers.

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