How the sausage gets made: Comparing today’s state budget process to previous process (Capitol Update)

Governor Stitt’s special session that lasted only a few hours brought attention to a perpetual issue: transparency of the legislative appropriations process. Stitt’s complaint was he didn’t know what was in the general appropriation bill until it was too late to affect the outcome. However, the solutions he proposed in his special session call would not have cured his complaint. His transparency proposals mostly tended to take effect at the end of the legislative session or later. 

Commitments and decisions about appropriations, though perhaps not final, are often made as the session progresses, and sometimes even before it starts. They are made in private conversations among legislators, in committee meetings, in conversations with constituents, and to the governor’s chagrin, in conversations with executive agency directors and staff. 

Appropriations decisions are not much different than all the other judgments made by the legislature. Most people have heard the old saw about lawmaking and sausage making. The Daily Cleveland Herald on March 29, 1867, quoted lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe saying that “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” 

Like it or not, there are plenty of reasons that 149 elected lawmakers, in delivering a majority vote in favor of the exact same wording in a single document, is never going to be completely transparent. That’s never going to change. 

Having said that, the Oklahoma appropriations process has been and could be more transparent. Or perhaps a better word might be inclusive. Two things have become customary in recent years that decrease transparency and inclusiveness: (1) Use of the “general appropriation” bill that includes the entire state budget in one bill, and (2) the creation and use of the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB).

During most of the time I was in the legislature each agency budget was appropriated in a “special appropriation” bill for only that single agency. The bill was produced by the appropriations subcommittee having jurisdiction over the agency. The bill then went to the full appropriations committee where it could be amended. It then went to the floor of each chamber where it could be amended. The bill was not final at that point. 

The appropriations bills were then referred to the General Conference Committee on Appropriations (GCCA) where the final bills were written in conference by the subcommittees and voted on again by the full GCCA. The bills passed by the GCCA were non-amendable and were voted on by each legislative body. Every state agency was discussed and voted on separately in committees and on the floor of each chamber two times. 

Another difference between general appropriations bills and special appropriations bills is that special appropriations bills must pass with an emergency clause to take effect on July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. Sometimes, with controversial or unpopular agencies, or with certain things included in the appropriation, it was hard to get the 2/3 vote necessary for the emergency clause. But in the end, it always got done. 

Even this process was not fully transparent. At the end of the day there are always going to be a half dozen or so in the leadership making the final compromises that call for an up or down vote by the members. But more members were publicly involved and had their input during the process leading up to those final negotiations.

An interesting thing about service in the legislature is that when most members get elected and take their seat, they think the process they inherit is the way it has always been. They accept it as the way things are done. JCAB was only created about 10 or 12 years ago, but probably most members today assume that’s just the way it’s done. 

JCAB bypasses much of the legislative process. Instead of introducing appropriations bills at the beginning of session and passing them through committees and on the floor of each chamber throughout the session, appropriations measures are not introduced until about two or three weeks from the end of session. 

The JCAB bills go through their first two readings as shell bills and then are assigned to JCAB. They are heard for the first time in JCAB as a “committee substitute” and by joint rule are already non-amendable. The first time most members—even members of the appropriations committee—see a bill it is already in a form that cannot be amended. I don’t know how much input subcommittee members or other legislators have had on the bill, but the formal process is limited because of JCAB. 

The way the appropriations process previously worked consumed more open committee and floor time, and sometimes seemed like wasted motion. And when an amendment to the appropriations bill that passed the first time through was taken out in GCCA, the member who wanted it was not too happy. But at least they got to stand up and holler about it if they wanted to, and their constituents knew they had tried. Not saying one process is better than the other because I don’t know what’s happening among the legislators. If they’re happy with the current process, it works.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.