LegiSplaining: Base Budget

davidwicaiBlog, Legislature

The Legislature, which holds the responsibility for setting the state budget each year, now begins each legislative session passing a base budget. Generally, this budget mirrors the previous fiscal year.

Most years, the passage of the base budget guarantees that all state agencies will not suffer any cuts and accounts for a large chunk of the overall budget. After passing the base budget, legislators spend the remainder of the session deciding how to spend or save the new revenues.

Because the base budget is not required by statute, legislators can use it however they want. They can force agencies to make cuts that may or may not be restored, or they can include budget increases that everybody agrees to from the outset. (A common example is approving a 1 percent salary increase for state employees in the base budget, and then deciding on any additional salary increases during the session).

While the base budget now seems like standard procedure for legislators, the process as its currently done only came into usage in 2005 for political more than practical reasons. To help explain why they began using it that year, consider the two primary political advantages:

  • Passing a base budget guarantees the state will continue operating at current levels regardless of disputes over new spending. In other words, it eliminates the threat of a government shutdown for political reasons.
  • The governor has to execute any vetoes within 10 days during the session, giving legislators an opportunity to override those vetoes without a special session.

So why 2005? Because of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who had just come into office, and even more so, his predecessor, former Gov. Olene Walker.

Prior to 2005, legislators would work all session on the budget and pass a couple of massive budget bills that included all money during the final days (or sometimes, hours). But in 2004, Walker wanted $20 million for an elementary reading program that legislators balked at giving. In response, Walker threatened to veto the entire state budget – base and all – and she made it clear she wasn’t bluffing. (For anybody interested, I have a great story about Walker that underscores her seriousness in this threat and her toughness as a leader. Just ask).

Legislators, while privately fuming, relented and Walker got her reading program. But the next session, with Huntsman pushing an agenda that didn’t exactly match legislative leaders, they decided to use the base budget tactic. This essentially removed a lot of the governor’s negotiating power on budget items.