Who Gets to Participate in the State Budget Process?

Educators and school service personnel observed a Senate Finance Committee meeting earlier this week. Photo by Will Price, Legislative Photographer.

BY: KATELYN CAMPBELL, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT POLICY VISTA, THE HUB

In addition to evaluating and voting on changes to state law, the Legislature is constitutionally required to do one major thing during the Legislative Session: pass a budget.

Each year, the Governor delivers a lengthy (100+ pages) proposed budget filled with numbers and directions for how dollars from taxes and fees should be spent. Legislators from each house’s Finance Committee are tasked with working with the Budget Bill to ensure other bills passed by the Legislature do not cause the next fiscal year’s budget to fall out of balance. They also must ensure that there is a plan for every dollar that goes out or comes in.

This complicated process has been made to seem as if the Finance Committees and their Chairs are the Wizard of Oz — all powerful people undertaking some mystical process that magically turns out a balanced budget. But, at the end of the day, the Wizard was really just a man behind a curtain, and the same can be said about the people who make the budget.

The process of balancing the budget isn’t magic — it’s a process based upon upholding prior commitments and weighing emerging priorities.

West Virginia’s educators and service personnel gathered in long lines and huge crowds to express their opinions about one specific part of the budget – the amount allocated toward pay for public employees.

After two weeks of demonstrations involving thousands of people from all over the state, legislators were finally able to reach an agreement on a 5% across the board pay raise for public employees.

On the pathway to this landmark agreement, the unusually high level of public participation had lawmakers on edge. Discussions grew even more tense as the clock ticked toward the budget deadline with teachers still out on the picket line. Accusations were made that these citizens did not understand how the budget process worked, or respect what a tight financial situation the finance committees were working with.

These accusations have us wondering: if a lack of knowledge really is what’s standing in the way of citizen participation, how are citizens supposed to know the “right way” to make the budget when there is so little communication about what actually happens during the process?

Citizens should be able to participate in the budgeting process to the full extent they are legally allowed. We have a few recommendations for changes that could make a huge difference in ensuring that citizens and legislators are on the same page.

  • Take a page out of the Auditor’s book. Translating information about the budget into an easily understandable format would make it much simpler for citizens to get a handle on how decisions are being made. We love how easy the WV Checkbook website makes it to understand how dollars are being spent and collected.
  • Explain the numbers. Members of the public have been very skeptical of Governor Justice’s recent release of increased revenue projections for the coming fiscal year. In order for the public to understand the reality of the budget, it’s important that they know how these numbers are calculated and why they’re accurate.
  • Give more detailed status updates. While we know that the budget is often in flux until the last minute, it would be helpful to receive more detailed updates about the status of the budget deliberation process.
  • Go Live. Many representatives have been using Facebook Live to provide regular updates about what’s going on at the Legislature and to answer constituent questions. These videos are very popular, and are a good way to get information out to constituents using minimal resources. The videos are also a great way to receive constituent feedback.

 

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