Legisplaining: Budget Prioritization

davidwicaiBlog, Legislature

Approximately halfway through each legislative session, the appropriations subcommittees finish their work by sending a priorities list to leadership. These lists (usually) carry significant weight with those making the final decisions.

This year, these priority lists have added interest for the department. We are watching our own building blocks within the Business, Economic Development, and Labor subcommittee, in particular the $6 million in ongoing funding for arts and museums grants. Additionally, the Infrastructure and General Government subcommittee included our collections facility on their list of projects they support funding, although it fell outside of the actual priorities.

In this post, I’ll provide a deeper look at these priority lists. For a broader picture of how these fit within the budget process, read this post.

What are these lists? The subcommittees rank all of the requests, finalized in a public subcommittee vote, and send their list to the Executive Appropriations committee. The higher the ranking, the more likely the funding.

Who uses these lists? Legislative leaders and the Governor’s office will reference them throughout final budget negotiations.

How many top priorities actually get funded? In simplest terms, Executive Appropriations gives each subcommittee money and the priority list items get funding, in order, until the money is gone. That seldom happens, because legislative leaders and the Governor’s office each have their own priority lists. However, very little happens publicly during the budget process that isn’t somewhat scripted. So high priority items have a much better chance of actually getting funding than low priority items.

Would the lists ever be ignored? Leaders value the hard work of the subcommittees, but they also understand that ignoring the subcommittees carries risk because members have ousted leadership teams who didn’t value the subcommittees input. More typically, any dramatic changes to the priority lists by leadership will be done with the subcommittee consent. One example is a good cop and bad cop scenario — the subcommittee may rank a request from one of their members higher to build goodwill, but they do so with the understanding that leaders will play bad cop and knock it lower.

Why should people care? These lists provide the strongest public indicator about the final budget decisions. Legislative leaders and the Governor’s office won’t spend much time discussing “small dollar” items (relative to a $16 billion budget), so if they have confidence in the subcommittees many of the priorities will remain unchanged. In other words, people should care because these lists matter. A lot.