Why We Need Public Participation in Developing the State Budget

Cross-posted from the Public Assets Institute's blog:

Vermont’s fiscal 2014 budget development process is officially under way. And in what has become the new normal, the Shumlin administration is asking its agency managers to cut their budgets.

Fiscal 2014 begins on July 1, 2013; this budget will occupy the Legislature’s attention beginning in January. Under instructions issued two weeks ago, state managers should have submitted their proposed budget summaries to the Agency of Administration last Friday. Their final budgets are due in mid-December.

We don’t know what’s in those summaries; that part of the process isn’t public. In fact, other than the instructions to agency managers and the state revenue estimates, none of the administration’s budget development process has been made public. At least not yet.

This year the Legislature wrote into its fiscal 2013 budget bill (Secs. E.100.1 & E.100.2) language that requires the administration to include the public in its budget development process. That language was part of a larger People’s Budget effort promoted by the Vermont Workers’ Center. The public process was supposed to have started on October 1, but the administration now says that won’t happen until sometime after the election.

Meanwhile, agencies and departments across state government have their marching orders: find a way to get by in fiscal 2014 with the same amount of money you had this fiscal year—or perhaps even a little less. That sounds like level funding, but it’s actually a cut in many state services when you consider that general inflation, increased health care costs, and impending federal cuts create increased demand on state resources.

Public participation now—early in the budget development—is crucial, because historically that’s when the real decisions have been made. Part-time legislators do incredible work during short legislative sessions. But they rarely make big changes to the administration’s budget, whose goals and strategies are set even before the governor delivers his budget address in January.

And if legislators have limited time or ability to make major changes, it’s way too late for the public to weigh in meaningfully.

For years now, both Democratic and Republican administrations have proposed budgets that have cut state services and weakened state government’s ability to serve Vermonters. In a report earlier this year we provided one take on the level of these cuts just since the start of the recession in 2008. The report notes in Figure 3 that the fiscal 2013 budget would be $240 million higher had the Legislature merely followed the same spending trend that state had been on for the 25 years before the Great Recession.

Cutting services without meaningful input from Vermonters—the people affected by the state budget—is a disservice to the state. We look forward to seeing the administration’s plan for inviting that input, and opening its doors. The sooner the better.