Wyoming budget process needs fixedGuest column by Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander)
— June 3, 2014
The Wyoming Legislature budget process is broken and needs to be fixed. One of the serious problems with the process enabled the tossing out of science standards and months of work by the Wyoming State Board of Education with 10 minutes of debate in a single house of the Legislature without any input from the public. Some will argue that this was the correct outcome, but no one can disagree that the process that brought us here was flawed.
It was the afternoon of February 21. The House and Senate were working on the third and final reading of the Budget Bill, a big, long document that contains funding for all of Wyoming government for the next two years. The Budget Bill was developed by the Joint Appropriation Committee in a progression that had started more than two months earlier in the first part of December — a process known for its many hours of testimony from bureaucrats and very little input from the public.
The Representatives were wearing down after an exhaustive series of discussions on a far range of issues. It had been a long week and the budget had occupied most of four very tiring days in a complicated dance that was occurring at both ends of the Capitol at the same time. In a special procedure reserved only for the Budget Bill, the House and Senate addressed the legislation simultaneously. During previous days of debates, 83 amendments, many representing substantive changes in policy, passed, failed or were withdrawn by their sponsor. Another 50 amendments were in the hopper that day and it was now the last afternoon of the last day of budget floor debate.
After a series of deliberations on various amendments, the Presiding Officer recognized the Chairman of the House Education Committee who boldly strode to the microphone and offered Third Reading Amendment Number 14, amending page 88 of the 178 page budget. The Chairman argued that Next Generation Science standards improperly considered global warming and did not suitably reflect the possibility for creation theory. Just under 10 minutes later, after brief statements from a total of eight, no doubt very tired, Wyoming Representatives – two Democrats and six Republicans with four in favor and four against — it was over. The amendment passed with 39 legislators standing in favor upon a call for division. We do not know how individual legislators voted, as in contrast to a stand-alone bill, a recorded vote did not occur on that specific amendment.
Amendment 14 was not voted on separately in the Senate. Unlike some other attempts to influence the Budget, a similar amendment was never offered in the Senate where a mirror Budget Bill was being debated. After the Budget Bills passed each house, Wyoming Senators heard about the actions of the Representatives before the bills were sent to the Budget Conference Committee. The Conference Committee spent a lot more time on the Amendment than did the House of Representatives and they were bound by our rules to try to work out the differences between the two versions of the budget. You can be the judge of their work which kept the essence of Amendment 14 in, changing the word “review” to “adoption” and added specifics listing the unacceptable standards as being any from “the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Research Council, and Achieve.”
After many more hours of work in other areas as well, the Conference Committee sent the compromise budget to both houses for approval and the House of Representatives and Senate each held a single vote on the compromise version of the entire exhaustively-developed Budget. The budget process does not permit anyone to divide out objectionable portions for a separate vote. Once the compromise budget was passed by both Houses, the enrolled act was sent to the Governor who had three days to exercise his veto powers, which on bills containing appropriations, includes line-item-veto power. Amendment 14 as modified by the Conference Committee escaped the Governor’s veto pen.
I have been around a while, even serving 4 years on the Appropriations Committee, and working the budget has always been a tough job. Prior to adopting the mirror budget process, the budget bill proceeded through one house and then the other. This was a better way for the public to have access and it allowed better scrutiny of the work being done. It was less likely that the budget would be Christmas-tree’d with legislation that more properly belongs in a stand alone bill.
The Wyoming Constitution has a lot to say about this. Several sections (called Articles) address bills and budgets. Clearly the drafters of our Constitution envisioned that bills must stand on their own and go through both houses of the legislature under a process where the final vote is recorded in each house. It also is clear that the Budget Bill is only supposed to deal with expenditures for the operation of government and not contain the policy prescriptions which are now norm. Of course, any critic would be quick to point out that there is not a clear line and that when you provide expenditures you can provide what they are for or what they are for not. Maybe, but the spirit of the Constitution suggests otherwise. Let’s take a look:
Article 3, Section 20. No law shall be passed except by bill, and no bill shall be so altered or amended on its passage through either house as to change its original purpose.
Article 3, Section 23. No bill shall be considered or become a law unless referred to a committee, returned therefrom and printed for the use of the members.
Article 3, Section 24. No bill, except general appropriation bills and bills for the codification and general revision of the laws, shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title; but if any subject is embraced in any act which is not expressed in the title, such act shall be void only as to so much thereof as shall not be so expressed.
Article 3, Section 25. No bill shall become a law except by a vote of a majority of all the members elected to each house, nor unless on its final passage the vote taken by ayes and noes, and the names of those voting be entered on the journal.
Article 3, Section 34. The general appropriation bills shall embrace nothing but appropriations for the ordinary expenses of the legislative, executive and judicial departments of the state, interest on the public debt, and for public schools. All other appropriations shall be made by separate bills, each embracing but one subject.
Amendment 14 should have been considered as a stand-alone bill. It should have been through a committee in each house where the public is allowed to testify and the committee is able to spend sufficient time to learn all the ramifications of the proposed legislation. It should have been considered in both houses sequentially and a recorded vote from each member taken on final passage in each house. By tacking it onto the Budget Bill, none of these checks and balances happened and the proud Wyoming Legislature slipped a little bit closer to emulating one of the worst aspects of Congress – bills with more than one subject that can increase the tendency towards log rolling or vote trading. Legislators end up not opposing the budget because, as bad as it is, it has more good in it for their constituents than not. As a result everyone tends to vote yes and government grows and includes programs of dubious value.
There are also Constitutional requirements related to how the Legislature handles education. One of the sections specifies that the legislature shall not specify “textbooks” — this was the curriculum speak of its day. Another says that schools should not be “sectarian.” Always it is shades of gray, but arguably these provisions were relevant to the issue and were not covered in the limited forum of the debate on Amendment 14.
Article 7, Section 11. Neither the legislature nor the superintendent of public instruction shall have power to prescribe text books to be used in the public schools.
Article 7, Section 12. No sectarian instruction, qualifications or tests shall be imparted, exacted, applied or in any manner tolerated in the schools of any grade or character controlled by the state, nor shall attendance be required at any religious service therein, nor shall any sectarian tenets or doctrines be taught or favored in any public school or institution that may be established under this constitution.
If Amendment 14 was a stand-alone bill in a legislative committee where public testimony and discussion is allowed, these arguments would have been able to be advanced and debated more thoroughly.
I am not saying that budget Christmas-treeing doesn’t happen all the time, or that I haven’t engaged in a bit of it myself. From a strategy perspective as a legislator, this has been a great way to circumvent the 2/3rds vote required for non-budget bills in a budget session. But the real answer is for all of us to develop rules in compliance with the Constitution and to follow them.
First, let’s get rid of the mirror bills for the budget and even more radically start allowing public testimony in the budget hearings. Next, let’s stick to the strict use of the budget as a funding and not a policy vehicle. Finally, let’s consider adding a way for each house to reject aspects of the Budget Compromise that fall outside of constitutional sensibility and send the Committee back with a limited mandate.
The mirror budget process was adopted to save time, but it really doesn’t. It still takes four days dedication by each house. That would not have to change, only that the days would not be simultaneous. And if we toe the line on Christmas-tree amendments, folks will quit offering them and the time required for the budget could drop dramatically.
The current mirror bill process failed us. It failed the people of Wyoming, and it failed the good people of the Wyoming legislature. This needs to be fixed.
— Senator Cale Case represents Wyoming Senate District 25, which includes his hometown of Lander, the Wind River Indian Reservation, Hudson, Atlantic City, a small portion of Riverton and vast parts in between. Cale is an economist and consultant with a PhD from University of Wyoming. He has served in the Wyoming Legislature for 22 years.
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