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The Legislative Process - The Operating Budget

Posted on January 23, 2016 at 7:20 PM Comments comments (4)

With less than 90 days left in the 2016 legislative session, the Alaska State Legislature is now considering the state operating budget for fiscal year 2017(FY17), commencing July 1, 2016. The operating budget consists of state employee salaries, operational costs, bond debt payments, Medicaid costs, and budget items necessary to keep the government going. The state capital budget consists of tangible items, i.e. building maintenance, road maintenance, new state buildings, office equipment, etc. This article focuses on the operating budget process, although the capital budget process is similar. 

Session adjourns April 17 this year. The clock is ticking...

The executive branch agencies (there are 15 plus the governor’s office), the Legislature, the court system and the university have submitted their requested operating and capital budgets to the governor for consideration. He revealed his budget decisions in December. This is the starting point for the legislature to start their deliberations. (See HB 256 and SB 120.)

What's happening in Juneau right now?

House members are assigned to subcommittees for each operating budget. State agency representatives are meeting formally with the assigned subcommittees right now, justifying their need for increases/decreases and changes to their budgets. They review details of personnel, operational costs, federal mandates, and all that goes into running state government. The Legislature also has a full-time legislative finance agency that works in tandem with the subcommittees, legislative leadership and the governor’s office to provide any detail work that may be required to understand the budget dynamics. The subcommittees are given a 'cap' for their assigned budgets by the legislative leadership, to keep the spending to a set ceiling based on last year's numbers plus (or minus!) fiscal year 2017 considerations.These are complicated budgets, and difficult to fully comprehend in such a short period of review time.

Around late February, the House Finance Committee holds a statewide public hearing on the state operating budget to give advocates an opportunity to defend programs they feel are most important to them, their communities and their constituencies. This hearing is posted about a week before it takes place around the state. Participants are allowed two minutes to make their case via teleconference at their local Legislative Information Office. House Finance Committee members sit through a day of testimony to listen, take notes, and absorb what residents are saying. Legislators take note of their own constituents, so if you have a budget item you are passionate about, by all means participate in this exercise. Make sure to identify yourself with your House and Senate District. Your voice will not go unnoticed.

Once the public hearing is done, the full House Finance committee considers the subcommittees’ recommendations and recommendations from their constituencies. Amendments are offered in committee, and once finalized, the operating budget is passed out of committee to the House Floor for debate and a vote. The House takes at least two days to debate, consider amendments and vote.

Once the budget is passed by the House, it is passed to the Senate, where it goes through the same process, including another opportunity for public testimony. Once the Senate passes its version of the operating budget, the House is notified.

What happens if there are differences between the House and Senate numbers?

Since the House and Senate versions are always different, the Senate President and the Speaker of the House assign three of their members to a Conference Committee to iron out the differences. This committee usually consists of the co-chairs of their respective Finance Committee, as well as one minority member from each Finance Committee. Although the conference committee meets in public, the decisions made are agreed upon before the members sit at the table. At this point in the process, there is no testimony from agencies or public. This happens during the final days of session. Any item that matches in both the House and Senate version of the operating budget is not open for discussion. Decisions are made only on items that have different numbers. The Conference Committee can accept one of the two numbers, deny the increment, or compromise in between the numbers. Rarely does the committee add more money to the budget unless it is technical in nature or a majority of the committee votes in favor of the increase. Bear in mind that the capital budget also goes through a similar process, and the final capital budget is revealed in the last days or hours leading up to adjournment. There are also multiple pieces of important and sometimes contentious legislation that are all bottled up at the end, and since the Legislature is mandated to adjourn within 90 days, you can imagine there are some long days and nights to get them to the last day.

Session adjourns on or before April 17 this year. So much to do…so little time…