Monday, March 10, 2008

Another Year, Another Extended Session.

It’s that time of year again. Instead of coming home on time, the General Assembly is going into over time to get a budget passed. I remember those days well. Everyone is ready to get back home to their families and their normal lives. The last place you want to be is stuck in Richmond during a budget impasse. Not my fondest memories of being a legislator.

Extended Sessions are hard on legislators and unacceptable to the people of this State. Our citizens deserve better. They deserve an elected body that can work efficiently and get things done.

I believe it’s safe to say that our current budget process has some serious flaws. But we can fix it.

Our biennial budget is currently adpoted in even years. Odd year Sessions are used to amend the current budget and last 30 days with a 15 day extension. The original intent was for odd year Sessions to consider only carry over bills from the previous Session. Now bills can be introduced in either year.

Even year Sessions are 60 days to allow additional time to pass the budget. In this system, a Governor only really gets to introduce and fight for one budget that belongs to him. This was Kaine’s year to do just that. A Governor takes office in an even year, so he inherits the budget of the preceding Governor. He then leaves office in an even year, so he has to introduce a budget that he cannot advocate for. That’s the next Governor’s job. I don’t think this makes any sense.

Move the budget writing to the odd years. This would give the Governor an opportunity to introduce and advocate for two budgets, not just one. The odd year budget Sessions should be lengthened to 75 days. Regular even year Sessions would remain at 60 days. The extra 15 days in the even years should be used exclusively for budget negotiations.

Legislators would vote on the budget on the 60th day of the Session and then recess. Assuming the House and Senate pass different versions, this would also be the day in which conferees would be named. At 67 days, conferees must have a compromise report ready. If not, new conferees would be required to be named to iron out the differences.

If a budget is not passed by the 75th day, the legislature adjourns and the State continues operating under the previous budget’s spending guidelines. If less money is available, spending is reduced on a pro rata basis. If a surplus is created, that money is deposited in the rainy day fund. It cannot be spent.

Should a budget compromise not be reached in 75 days, legislators would forgo all salaries, benefits and reimbursements for the next fiscal year. They would also lose staff and office expense accounts. Many Senators and Delegates can survive without pay. Most cannot survive without their staffs.

Hopefully this system would create enough incentive to finish the budget in a timely manner. Regardless of the approach, we need reform. Right now it is not clear in our Constitution what would happen if we simply don’t have a budget. Lets fix it before we find out.


D.J. McGuire said...

I disagree on shifting the budget year. New Governors can scratch their outgoing predecessors' budget and replace it with their own. It's what Mark Warner did with Gilmore's budget, for example.

As for the rest, it's spot on.

Brandon Bell said...


The problem is time. New Governors take office 10 days into a session only lasting 60 days. If they come through an election to say "reform transportation" there is not enough time to do it properly. To accomplish what you outline in transportation would not only take budget action but code changes and potentially a constitutional admendment. If you miss this opportunity then you only have the one try midway through your term.

One of the complaints against Gilmore for instance was that he offered a budget that was not realistic in the revenue projections yet left town with a theoretically balanced budget. This, along with the use of FRANs, or borrowing against future federal transportation moneys, led to reckless financial management in the state.

D.J. McGuire said...

Then the better course of action would be to make the budgets annual rather than biennial.