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Deal administration, legislative budget writers are cooperating

ATLANTA --- House Appropriations Chairman Terry England strolled into the Senate chamber Friday with a document under his arm and homed in on his opposite number in the Senate, Jack Hill.

That's about all the ceremony involved in the annual ritual of transferring the budgeting task from the House to the Senate, but the lack of formalities might be appropriate considering how different current budget processes are from those of fairly recent years.

Under the heading of "knowledge is power," everyone in the budget process used to routinely guard information as a way to wield power against meddling. Functionaries within the bureaucracy would fudge their numbers when dealing with senior managers. Agency heads would hedge when dealing with the governor's office. Administration officials would obfuscate in hearings before legislators, and the House leadership rarely played it straight with the Senate.

So much distrust and double dealing made budgeting akin to negotiating to buy a new car -- times 10. It also was wasteful.

Every party in the process feared being left with insufficient resources. To combat that, everyone found ways to hide money in the budget. Reserve accounts built up. Employees who left weren't replaced, but their salaries were continued on paper to maintain a funding flow. Or maybe funds from one program would subsidize another.

No one was innocent. Because they knew everyone else was playing the game, participants were suspicious of all their colleagues.

While those tendencies will never disappear completely, some of the problems are less intense, thanks to recent developments.

One is technology. A computer system called PeopleSoft, which much of state government uses for accounting, makes accurate, timely information available to all participants.

Simple math errors used to create large anomalies in the budget.

When the Republicans took control of the Senate but the House remained in Democratic hands, the Senate began using staffers to analyze the budget, and they did it on computers. The House staff was still using adding machines.

One budget conference impasse lasted for days because House and Senate numbers disagreed by a few thousand dollars until the senators urged the House staff to review the Senate's computer printouts. That's how a math mistake was discovered.

It was also when the House decided to switch to computers, too.

The advent of the separate budget offices for the two chambers also helped change the dynamics. It might seem that it would have made relations more adversarial, and it did initially.

When a single, joint office assisted legislators' review of the budget, its staff essentially was only responsive to the House leadership, according to Hill.

"If you weren't in that group, you couldn't get the levels of information," he said.

Without details below the surface level, senators couldn't understand funding decisions made by the administration or the House, so they remained suspicious of them.

Then the Senate budget staff began digging, asking questions of agency financial staff and raising the level of understanding on the Senate side. Once that happened, the Senate staff began making substantive recommendations of its own, which made the Senate an equal player.

For example, the Senate staff realized the Department of Administrative Services was hoarding $14 million in reserves while still seeking funding. At the same time, the agency was getting revenue from purchasing cards used by state workers, so the Senate began trimming the annual appropriation by $9 million, with the goal of eventually ending it altogether.

The Senate also came up with the idea of counting private donations to the Boys and Girls Clubs toward the state's share of funding for after-school care at the clubs. That expanded the state's match so it qualified for enough new federal funding for 3,000 more kids to participate.

After Republicans took control of the House, new people were bringing new ideas. As they began communicating the thinking behind their decisions, their Senate counterparts bought into many of the ideas and pushed further to find even more economies.

Such is the case with "self-sufficiency." That's the idea that agencies generate enough money from fees, grants or federal programs to require no state funds. There is almost a friendly competition between the House and Senate to find new places to impose self-sufficiency.

"I think both offices have been a tremendous improvement for the people of the state," Hill said.

Gradually, the administration has been more cooperative, too. That's partly because everyone understands now that the budget will be cut, and better understanding of all the details reduces the chances that vital services will be cut when other savings are possible.

The next step in the evolution of the budgeting process comes with zero-based budgeting. That's where one-fourth of the agencies each year present justification for all existing programs for legislative review. Where it's been done, other states have found few large examples of waste, but it could result in still greater understanding on the part of legislators, which could have other benefits.

Maybe one day someone will devise an elaborate ceremony for the hand-off from one stage in the budget process to the next.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter at MorrisNews.)

Web posted on Thursday, March 17, 2011

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