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Few Know What’s In The Budget… That’s The Point

September 21, 2021

The Legislature is expected to approve more than $50 billion in spending next week, likely the most amount of money Michigan state government has spent in state history.

What’s in this document? It will be state government’s spending plan in less than two weeks, after all.

Outside of the close-knit circle of state government leaders and staff who need to know because it’s their job, nobody knows.

The House passed its own omnibus spending plan (HB 4410) prior to the July 4 weekend, which had sign off from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and State Budget Director Dave Massaron. That likely would give observers a fairly good idea of what’s expected to pass next week.

But it may be Tuesday until the public knows for sure. By that time, legislators may be asked to vote on what amounts to close to 800 pages of government spending.

“This is sausage-making done in the dead of night, and then they serve it for breakfast whether you like or not,” said former Michigan House Fiscal Agency director Mitch Beannow with Great Lakes Economic Consulting.

The plan is to hold a conference committee on one giant omnibus spending bill. There may be a second for the higher education portion to the extent School Aid Fund money is being used.

Without individual subcommittees to hash out details, interested members of the public will be served a roughly $50 billion piece of poundcake to swallow. Legislators may be presented with the option of passing it quickly to make the ferry to Mackinac Island for the Detroit Regional Chamber conference or missing the conference to review the document.

“It will be the largest spending bill the state has ever put out and we’re talking about not having any details 72 hours before it gets popped? Is that transparent?” asked Craig Thiel of the Citizens Research Council. “What’s the rush?”

Over the last 20 years, the final state budget deliberation process has gradually become a smooth operation. The efficiency of a few key leaders deciding everything behind closed doors has trumped open dialogue and debate.

In years past, it took the House a day to pass a then-Department of Community Health budget. Friday, an entire budget passes the House with little dialogue in a couple afternoon hours.

This year, the Legislature violated state law in not getting a final budget to the Governor by July 1. The K-12 portion made it, but everything else did not.

Once lawmakers and the Governor agreed to decouple the regular Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget process with the spending of $10 billion in additional federal and state money, many of the tense issues that could have held up the negotiations disappeared.

Yet, it’s two weeks until the Oct. 1 start of FY 2022 and here we are. Last year, when the budget was passed in short order and outside of the conference committee process, the reasoning was lawmakers were under the gun to produce something quickly because the amount of money at stake was in question until mid-August.

In 2019, things fell apart in a Whitmer-Republican legislature power struggle.

This year, neither scenario is the issue. So why are the numbers in this budget document such a big secret if the powers that be have already agreed to them?

“Given the amount of state resources at their disposal, the voices of ‘We didn’t get our fair share’ should be few and far between,” Thiel said. “But they still want to keep those voices quiet because they want to get this out as fast as they can without anyone calling them out on it.”

More time means more lobbyists have a chance to dissect the spending document. Unhappy lobbyists can make lawmakers uncomfortable. Changes will be attempted. Once one is cleared, others will be inspired to try.

More time to review the budget means more amendments attempted for political reasons. More time. More consternation over an agreement that’s designed to be impenetrable to change.

Bean added that additional transparency opens lawmakers up to criticism in the press and possibly public pressure. A short timeframe gives legislators the type of cover that members of Congress give themselves.

“Don’t give me that B.S. that it’s transparent because it’s not,” he said.

Also, giving the press a short window to cover the enormous state budget makes it more likely the pre-crafted talking points and highlights will be used in the coverage. The media focus tends to be more on the overall accomplishment as opposed to the document itself.

The thinking is that any deep dives into the budget, if done at all, won’t be completed until the bill is well on its way to the Governor.

“It’s a cop-out, but it’s the way of the world,” Thiel added. “For political purposes, it’s being held up in the dark and not seeing the light of day.”

The modern-day omnibus being used for the FY 2022 budget is a creature of the FY 2006 budget.

It stemmed from something called “The Price of Government” or “POG.” It’s a philosophy born out of a book of the same title penned by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson in which government priorities are listed out and ranked by importance. When everyone agrees how much money government has to spend, a line is drawn across the spending priorities based on what government can afford.

Everything above the line is funded. Those things below the line are not.

The Republican-led House at the time didn’t take the book to the extreme, but it did deduce that throwing everything in one single budget — as is done in Congress — can make the often-burdensome process of passing individual department budgets more efficient and tidier.

In 2005, the Senate begrudgingly went along with passing what were called “mini-buses,” spending bills that included multiple departments, but not all departments funded out of the General Fund.

The mini-bus was used in 2006, but abandoned between 2007-2010 when Speaker Andy Dillon and the Democrats were in charge of the House. Then Gov. Rick Snyder came into office with his July 1 budget deadline deal and soon omnibus budgets were brought back for the length of his two terms — 2011-2018.

With Whitmer, department-by-department budgets returned in 2019, but were abandoned again in 2020 as legislators were universally praised for throwing together a budget on the fly.

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