Patriot Ledger State House Bureau
Every year, Norman Smith wonders whether the prolonged budget debates on Beacon Hill will force him to cut back on staff and hours at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, or even close the place entirely.
Smith, the director of the popular class-trip destination on the Milton-Canton
border, has survived recommended budget cuts each of the past two years,
but now hes worried about a third attempt by the governors office.
In the last two years, lawmakers eventually overrode the
governors proposals and agreed to send money to the museum,
which relies on the state for about half of its $500,000
But Smith is still waiting to find out whether the museums
funds will survive this time around. It makes for a very
uncertain situation, all the time, Smith said. In January,
the governors budget comes out (but) we never
know until July what we might get.
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Thats just one line item in a budget that can be as thick as a phone book when printed, with a $23.5 billion bottom line. State aid to cities and towns, money for preschool programs and higher education, and hundreds of other line items all get caught up in a power struggle between the Republican administration of Gov. Mitt Romney and the Democrats who control the Legislature.
The result is far from the orderly budget planning that takes place in the corporate world. Instead, the tug of war on Beacon Hill leaves many beneficiaries of state aid unsure just how much money theyll receive for much of the year making it tough for them to plan their own budgets.
Each January, the governor submits a spending plan for the state fiscal year that begins in July. But within a few months, much of that plan wont even matter.
By April, the House of Representatives comes up with its own plan, with Democratic legislators largely discarding the Republican governors spending proposal.
Later each spring, the Senate writes its own version of a state budget. The House and the Senate then thrash out their differences before sending it back to the governor who can use his veto pen to zero out any spending he disagrees with but cant add anything to the budget at that point.
All the while lobbyists and special interest groups fill the corridors of the State House, chatting up lawmakers in the hopes of influencing the budget-writing process.
Budget experts say its difficult for states to adopt the more orderly budget process used by financial executives in the private sector.
The budget process here is highly inefficient, but because it is a policy process, not just a fiscal process, thats why it is so complicated, said Linda Bilmes, a public policy lecturer at Harvard Universitys John F. Kennedy School of Government. In business, the budgeting process is more of an internal thing. In government, the budget is where competing interests are reconciled.
The state uses a maintenance budgeting approach, which means state budget analysts begin the process by figuring out what it would cost to provide the same services as the previous year. As a result, most line items from the previous year make it into the budget untouched.
For better or worse, thats proven the best way. Previous attempts to apply private-sector budgeting techniques to public-sector spending plans have produced mixed results.
Former President Jimmy Carter was famous for his use of zero-based budgeting, through which budget-makers start with the assumption they will spend nothing and build up.
The process has proven unworkable for government, experts say, because it means budget analysts every year would have to go into every single agency and every single line item, and start the budgeting process from square one.
State Treasurer Timothy Cahill recalls Quincy Mayor William Phelan using zero-based budgeting when Cahill was a Quincy city councilor.
I think its a gimmick, Cahill said. My last year in the city council, the mayor came up with this big zero-based budget, but it was really a sham. It wasnt a real change. You still base your budgets on what you spend the year before.
In 1992, then-Gov. William Weld employed a performance-based budgeting approach, which allocates money to broad areas such as highway construction and homelessness services, and sets performance goals for each.
That approach failed, too. While the performance of private businesses can be measured through quarterly earnings or long-term dividends, in the public sector, many programs dont generate revenue and their bottom lines dont necessarily show how well a road was fixed or what type of assistance a homeless family received.
House Speaker Thomas Finneran has another idea: a two-year budget. Passing a budget every second year would allow the governor and legislators to use the off-year to concentrate on policy. And Finneran would give incentives to encourage department heads to create efficiencies.
I think a two-year budget would give a sense of stability and predictably to those department heads and agency heads, and we could align it with incentives, said Finneran, a Mattapan Democrat. If they perform their functions in accordance with expectations and do that for less than the appropriation theyve been given, I think they should be allowed to keep some or all of the savings and apply it as they see fit.
But budget experts say states that have switched to two-year cycles spend a lot of time making changes and adjustments to their spending.
The story from states that do two-year budgeting is... that it really isnt better, because what they do is pass a series of supplemental budgets, said Bilmes of the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard.
Yet another approach activity budgeting can be used on a limited basis to help the state understand what its getting for its money, Bilmes said.
Activity budgeting tracks what it costs to do things for example, what it costs to bake a loaf of bread, as opposed to what it costs to run a bakery.
The best way to get a grip on costs is not to see the public works budget, but to say per pothole, what does it really cost to fill them in? Bilmes said. Then you can see where you have a lot of excess costs. That is the frontier where budgeting need to go getting away from the line-item budgets to what it costs to do things.
Tom Benner may be reached via email by clicking here.
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A special report
Published June 12-17, 2004