by Brian Balfour
Senior Vice President of Research, John Locke Foundation
Packing policy into budgets harms transparency and accountability
What do separation of powers issues, election policy, energy policy, and bills related to second amendment rights have in common?
None of them belong in the state budget bill, but might end up there anyway.
The purpose of the state budget, the largest annual piece of legislation addressed by state legislators, is to designate how state revenue is to be spent. Budget bills are titled the “Current operations appropriations act” for a reason.
Indeed, the “State Budget Act” found in General Statutes Chapter 143 defines appropriations as “An enactment by the General Assembly authorizing the withdrawal of money from the State treasury.”
Over the years, however, the state budget has increasingly become a landing spot for various public policies not involving the authorization of the withdrawal of money from the State treasury.
For instance, the 2021 budget included a provision, as reported by the News & Observer, “requiring the governor to get more agreement from other statewide leaders on the length of states of emergency.”
Good policy, but not appropriate for a budget bill.
House Speaker Tim Moore was quoted in that N&O article supporting legislation “restoring the appropriate balance of powers to the people,” and that “you may see a lot of those things dealt with in the budget.”
Other non-appropriation policies that may also find their way into this year’s budget include the items listed above.
Including policy not authorizing the expenditure of state funds distorts the true purpose of the state budget and reduces government transparency and accountability.
Such policies deserve their own stand-alone bills to ensure robust debate on their own merits, not as a provision tucked into a 400-page budget bill. Instead of a more transparent process of shepherding each policy initiative as a separate bill that citizens can track and potentially comment on in committee hearings, these policies receive little to no attention as they can get overwhelmed and overshadowed by discussions about the major, and oftentimes contentious, spending provisions in the budget. And by tucking these provisions in the budget, we don’t know which legislators initiated the policy proposal, something that would be obvious if they were introduced as induvial bills with sponsors.
Moreover, these policies can oftentimes find themselves as little more than bargaining chips in the budget negotiation process, instead of being fully vetted on a case-by-case basis.
Budget bills are just that: budgets. They shouldn’t be turned into omnibus policy proposals.