State budget actions tell us how well our democracy is working

Forty-seven states must pass state budgets this year. The majority of them have introduced budget bills and are debating them in public, often inviting participation from citizens. Many will devote months to an open, public discussion of the state’s service and fiscal priorities.

Oklahoma, by contrast, is one of few states where there is currently no introduced budget and limited discussion of budget priorities. Oklahoma is likely to once again wait until late in the legislative session to introduce a budget and then to bypass regular legislative rules to pass a budget in just a week or two with little to no public debate.

Democracy works best when it’s done in full view of voters. That way they can follow their representatives’ actions and hold them accountable at the ballot box. Other states show their commitment to democracy in their budget processes, and Oklahoma can learn from these states.

State budget actions show how committed we are to transparency and democracy

Every state constitution requires its Legislature to adopt a budget once every year or two. This year, OK Policy is monitoring budget processes and decisions in all the states to learn more about budget transparency.

As of this writing, budgets have been introduced in all but five states: Oklahoma, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Eighteen of the 42 introduced budgets are still in committee for public input and debate as described later in this post. Twenty-four states have completed committee work, usually offering an amended budget, and all but two of these budgets have passed the first of two legislative chambers. Of these, 14 budgets have also been approved by the second chamber. In many cases, the chambers disagreed and conference committees were assigned to resolve differences. In seven states, the two chambers have agreed on a budget and sent it to the governor. Six of these states’ governors have signed budgets, and the state budget process is complete. 

To make this map, we reviewed each state’s legislative website, identified the budget bill, and traced the bill through the budget process. Some states, unlike Oklahoma, pass individual budget bills for each state agency. In those cases, we tracked the budget bill for public schools, which is the largest single budget item for states, and one of the most visible budget debates. Our map is updated through legislative actions of April 20, 2021. Three states — Kentucky, Virginia, and Wyoming — are not preparing full budgets this session because they are in the second year of a biennial budget.

Budgets are everyone’s business

Introducing a budget is an important step that lets residents know discussions are underway and their window to monitor and influence decisions is open. They may also be able to see if the budget helps them or will reduce their services. State employees could find out if a pay raise is funded; parents, teachers, and advocates could see what the state plans to spend on services for children; those concerned about an upcoming revenue shortfall can see how reserve funds would be used. Some states let citizens easily compare the legislature’s proposed budget to the governor’s and to last year’s or to a base budget. In Oklahoma and the four other states without introduced budgets, residents can’t really engage in the budget process, because there’s nothing to see.

Committees do the heavy lifting — and the careful listening — in most state budget processes

Once a budget is introduced, it is assigned to an appropriations or finance committee for review, public input, and recommendations to the full House or Senate. Committees do much of the work in any legislative process, but they are especially important in budgeting. Members must be interested in the detailed work of government, and they need to become experts, as other legislators will rely on their judgment.

Most states hold extensive committee deliberations in full view of the public. Many allow interest groups and individual citizens to testify on particulars of the budget. For those who are really, really interested, some states publish every word of committee testimony. Florida, one of the nations’ most transparent state governments, even publishes a list of lobbyists who participated in committee deliberations. 

In Oklahoma, committees play a limited role in the budget process. Their only public actions are to discuss agency budget requests and to consider bills that could have a fiscal impact on the state’s budget. Committee members may be involved in decision-making, but the public does not see or participate in those decisions.

Democracy requires transparency throughout the budget process

We put our trust in the electoral process, but it only works if our elected lawmakers trust us, too. The model for transparency is simple:

  • We elect people who we believe will represent our views and act in our best interest. In this context, the word represent means to make us present when laws are made.
  • Through an open legislative process, we are able to follow the decision-making process, make our views known, and track how well our representatives are sharing our views and advancing our interests.
  • At the next election, we can hold our representatives accountable for how well they served us and our communities.

When the system works right, legislators build our trust in them and in the institutions we need to provide our shared services; in turn, they trust us to support them when they represent us effectively. But if we can’t tell what our lawmakers are doing, we don’t know whether they are doing a good job or representing our communities. As a result, we can’t hold them accountable. In the absence of transparency, laws may more closely represent the views of those who were involved in the process rather than those of the public at large; this opens the door for corruption. That is why transparency isn’t an option, it’s an obligation.

Budget transparency is moral transparency

Budgets are not just financial documents, they are moral statements. When we fund government services, we are acknowledging and strengthening a community of shared values, responsibilities, and vision. When we decide how to pay for government, we are assessing responsibility for supporting that community. We are both shareholders and customers of government, and we should have real influence on how our money is spent.

When we make fiscal decisions about public budgets, we are inviting some or all of the community to influence those decisions. Who we invite shapes the decisions that we make. When budget discussions are open to all, budgets are most likely to meet the needs of the public. When discussions are closed, they may represent only the needs of a few. 

Other states make budget decisions collaboratively and in the open; we can, too.

Budget transparency builds trust in government and helps create budgets that more closely reflect citizen preferences and needs. Oklahoma lawmakers can follow the lead of other states to make the budget process more open and elected leaders more accountable. Oklahomans should expect our leaders to introduce a full budget early in the legislative session, hold open discussions and votes, and solicit the input of all their constituents.  

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn is a Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy. Shinn has held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He's also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

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