In an era when more and more Californians are demanding accountability and transparency in government, our budgeting process has slid back into the cloaked era of the past.
Fifty years ago, the California budget was put together in a back room. Those in attendance included the Department of Finance representing the Governor; the budget committee chairs and vices chairs representing the legislative leadership; and the legislative analyst. The budget they created was then handed the legislature for approval and finally sent to the governor. These budgets usually garnered 2/3 of the legislative vote, and nobody knew what deals went into the process until after the governor signed the budget in question.
In the early 1970’s, a group of lawmakers revolted and pushed for a more open process. This led to more transparent and later televised legislative discussions that included the administration and legislative analyst.
In general – aside from losing its way on fiscal balance – this process of open discussion served the state well. With a minimum of background knowledge, anyone could follow the work of lawmakers as they developed an annual spending plan.
Now, the dark days of behind-closed-doors budget-making have returned. Budgets require legislative policy changes that should be heard in public committees – But they are not. No better example exists than the major change in the current budget on how to treat school district solvency. One day after the dust has settled on this budget agreement, school districts are outraged at AB114, which they had not seen until it arrived on the governor’s desk.
The complexity of California’s fiscal system makes it critical for people to not only understand the final product but take part in the deliberative process.
California Forward has recommended that the system be more transparent by requiring that the budget and budget-related bills be released to the public three days before any legislative vote. If this becomes reality, the resulting transparent budgeting process might even inject some amount of fiscal discipline.