Legislators should take ownership of their big spending decisions

I’m getting a lot of flak in recent days about a report we did in April adding up the amount of money each legislator spent as part of the appropriations process during the last legislative session. We called it the “Big Spender Report.”

And I was content to ignore the whining until a few days ago when Betsy Russell, a reporter for the Spokesman-Review newspaper, scoffed at our review, noting that the Legislature has a House-Senate budget panel that sets budgets.

Writes Russell, “Once (budget bills) leave that panel, they rarely change, and the few ‘no’ votes generally are mere protests that they’re too high or too low. Setting a budget for the state is the Legislature’s main job; if all lawmakers voted against budget bills when they’re up for final votes, the Legislature would fail in its main task.”

Russell is saying that we’re asking lawmakers to vote against every budget presented to them — always and forever. Rubbish. What we’re saying is that the Legislature voted last session to increase general fund spending by almost 7 percent. Our alternative budget proposal, released in January, showed how the Legislature could have opted for a budget increase of less than 1 percent.

I speak to business owners and business employees every day. I know precious few who are increasing their budgets by as much as the state government did last legislative session.

Idahoans and Idaho businesses are still struggling along. The Legislature grew spending by an unreasonable amount, and no one wants to take ownership of that fact.

Additionally, the state still depends on massive amounts of federal money, which will be in short supply very soon as a result of an impending debt crisis, and the Legislature has done little to prepare for this reality.

Yet Russell, and some legislators, would have you believe that House and Senate floor budget votes, which we tracked obsessively, are largely inconsequential to the process, and legislators shouldn’t be held accountable for their individual spending decisions.

Perhaps that’s a reflection on a culture that is very much in place at the Statehouse. While bills from other committees fail all the time, a rejected budget bill is an anomaly. I can tell you about the only two in the last decade.

That’s right. I said “decade.”

In 2011, the House voted to return a Senate-passed budget bill to committee. The bill was the appropriation for the state Department of Insurance. House members rejected it because it contained $2.5 million in federal money for Idaho to start a state health insurance exchange.

Russell contends this vote doesn’t count because it merely was a move to return the bill to committee. I disagree.

In 2003, the Senate voted 18-17 to kill a bill appropriating money to the state Tax Commission. In this case, the objection was that the bill didn’t contain enough money to hire auditors necessary to collect taxes due.

So, yes, floor votes do matter. But not nearly as often as they should. That’s not because Idaho’s Legislature is designed to make floor votes irrelevant. It is because non-budget committee members have been told that the budget is someone else’s responsibility.

And now some lawmakers are complaining that, according to our data, they voted to spend more than their more liberal peers in the Legislature.

One Republican from southeastern Idaho wrote to his constituents: “The biggest reason legislators (especially Democrat legislators) vote no is because they believe the state should approve MORE spending.”

I’ve gotten this comment a lot. It seems that our more conservative friends are able to explain why liberals vote against budget bills. But I have yet to hear an explanation for why conservative legislators vote “yes” for higher-than-necessary spending.

Additionally, the reason liberals are comfortable voting “no” on budgets is because they’ve come to expect that moderates and conservatives will sit on their hands when an overly expensive budget bill comes along. Liberals know there is almost no chance that their votes will contribute to the defeat of a budget bill that will have to be rewritten to contain less money.

In 2013, as much as 40 percent of the Legislature will be comprised of freshmen. They’re going to hear early and often that budget votes matter, whether or not they’re on the budget committee.

And by reminding lawmakers that we’re watching, our hope is to change the culture of a Legislature that quietly embraces big spending.

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