Focus | Does Virginia’s state-budget process make sense?

House Speaker weighs in

Story by Chris Graham

The Kaine administration is hard at work putting together a proposed two-year budget for state lawmakers to review in the upcoming 2010 General Assembly session.

Anybody see what might be wrong with this picture? The big thing is that Tim Kaine won’t be governor next year, and the man replacing him, Bob McDonnell, has a decidedly different view on budgeting to the Kaine view.

Another big issue: “Many of the people who are putting together the budget in the Kaine administration are leaving. You have to wonder, What’s your motivation if you’re a political appointee, and you’re leaving? You lose in the implementation,” said Chris Saxman, himself a lame duck of sorts after deciding this summer to step down from his 20th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates at the end of his current term in January.

Saxman, a Republican, helped form the bipartisan Cost Cutting Caucus while in the legislature, and among the initiatives from the budget-focused lawmakers was effecting a change in the way state budgets are crafted.

Fundamental to that effort is doing something about the quirk in the process that has the outgoing administration laying the foundation for the incoming administration’s first state budget.

“It presents problems, especially when the transition is between different parties,” said Saxman, whose first year in the House of Delegates, in 2002, was also the first year of the gubernatorial term of Democrat Mark Warner, who succeeded Republican Jim Gilmore in the post.

“You had competing interests, which can be very tough to process as a legislator, especially in light of what we were facing in 2002 and 2003, which pale in comparison to today,” Saxman said.

Northern Neck Democratic Del. Albert Pollard has been trying to get at this issue for several years with proposed legislation that would move the state to an annual-budget process.

Pollard, in a Nov. 9 column published on his delegate website, cited the anamoly of a lame-duck administration writing the budget for its successor as an impetus for change along with fiscal transparency and accountability.

“Since almost everybody thinks in an annual budget cycle – people’s personal budgets, church budgets, and business budgets are almost all annual – a two-year budget cycle can create considerable confusion even among policymakers. As members of the legislature, we see annual and biennial numbers interchanged in a way that – purposely or not – obfuscates the truth,” Pollard wrote in the column.

Saxman said he understands the points raised by critics of the reform idea.

“The critics of foregoing the biennial budget have some good points on stability, long-term planning, those kinds of things,” Saxman said. “The problem is in the legislature you get the construction of a budget, and things in the second year of the budget can be really enticing, and you go, I can’t very well vote against that, so you trade one year for the next for legislative gain. But you’re dependent when you do that on economic forecasting for your funding, and that can lead to problems, as we’ve seen.”

House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, told in a recent interview that the budget-reform idea “has been around as long as I’ve been in the House,” but stopped short of calling the matter a “priority” when pressed.

“I think it’s something that could be better handled. But we’ve been voted the best-managed state, the best state in which to do business, held our triple-A bond rating, and on and on and on, with this process. I don’t think you’re going to see a change anytime soon. It’s not an emergency situation,” Howell said.


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