Charlie Arlinghaus

October 15, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

The executive branch just proposed a $2 billion increase in state spending and no one wants to talk about it. The budget process starts in October and the executive branch proposed spending $12.5 billion. Everyone involved admits this is an unrealistic and ridiculous place to start but no one wants to disown it just yet. Everyone involved in state budgeting should publicly repudiate the requests as unrealistic fantasies and commit to repealing the law that supposedly requires this bit of theater.

The state adopts a two-year budget in June each odd-numbered year but the process begins eight months earlier in the October preceding each general election. The governor’s final proposal must be presented in February but four months earlier her department heads are required by law to present their initial budgets. That initial budget this year asks for $12.5 billion over two years compared to the $10.5 authorized for the current budget.

These initial budgets are sometimes called agency wish lists but in reality they are guided by a state law and referred to as maintenance budgets. In theory, they are meant as an expression of what state law would require next year absent any changes to law. The theory behind the law as initially written was to establish a baseline.

In practice, department heads approach the law differently and governors approach the law differently. Some department heads regard them as an opportunity to put many different items on the table. One theory holds that programs are likely to happen only if they are put into discussion at this phase. A similar one suggests the more one asks for now the more a department will have after the budget is pared down into reality.

Some governors are more aggressive and work closely with department heads to create a realistic and useful step in the process. Others let fantasies take over and turn this phase into ridiculous theater. In their formal budget presentation in February, governors are wont to say “I cut millions of dollars from the agency budget requests.” It makes them look disciplined and only insiders know that the cuts were made to an illusory document.

At this point, the agency budgets are fantasy – a waste of time and paper for all involved. It might make sense to delete them from the web, send them back to the departments, and thank them for the busy work that wasted all of their time.

The year that ended June 30 spent $5.034 billion with an additional $5.5 billion authorized in the current year, according to Budget Office of the Department of Administrative Services. The fantasy budgets produced by the departments ask for $6.2 billion in the first year and $6.3 billion in the second year – a total of $12.5 billion compared to the $10.5 spent and authorized. This projected profligacy comes just after five months of discussion about budget shortfalls and the governor’s directive to find additional cuts to avoid a worsening deficit.

Let’ start off the next year by eliminating the so-called maintenance budget. Whatever point this may have served in the past, it serves none anymore. It is merely a distracting waste of everyone’s time. Agencies should still be required to produce a budget document with explanations. But that document should reflect instead the specific directives of the chief executive. It is a waste of everyone’s time to force the construction of a fantasy document but, most important, it is a waste of time of the people who will ultimately be tasked with helping the legislature find ways to cut spending from real levels not pretend levels. Executive branch budget officials have enough to do without creating busy work.

Instead, right now – before the election – everyone who wants to help control the budget and our current spending problem should tell us their target for spending. Last fiscal year was $5 billion. Do you intend to increase that amount? Will the current tax rates support any increase or do you have plans for additional revenue? During an election, we ought to know what’s planned.

Those auditioning to lead the state should tell us what they want to do. The leaders of the executive branch have bid for a $2 billion increase. Repudiate it and tell us what you would do instead lest we think you agree.

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