Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Regular readers of this column know that I consider the most important function of your legislature to be the preparation and passage of the budget for our state. To that end, we get a good idea of what our revenues will be-- compare that with our spending priorities—debate the various drafts of the budget so as to get implicit agreement from the taxpayers—and finally pass our spending plan. It goes almost without saying that the budget is the most comprehensive statement of what we truly care about and what we want our state government to accomplish.

It is always a little puzzling to this legislator to listen to the endless speeches and rhetoric from the members, extolling one political philosophy over another, or some set of priorities as superior to another, because it rarely gives an accurate reading of what we, as a body, truly believe or think. Read the budget, however, and it all comes into focus in brilliant high definition. If you are one of those folks, like me, who care about the particulars of these matters, please go to this rather long link and take a look: It’s all there
For those of us on Ways and Means, the process began late last year in subcommittee, as we took testimony to make certain that we were still in good agreement on our priorities, and that the needs of the various departments were in line with those priorities. At one time, late last fall, there was an estimate of a little over $400 million in “new” money, as a consequence of an improving economy reflected in higher tax revenues. Unfortunately, there was also more than a billion dollars in agency requests, most seeking to be made whole after years of reductions. Believe me, there are very few easy decisions in that part of the process.

Two weeks ago, Ways and Means Committee approved a $23.9 billion budget, $6.9 billion being total state appropriations. The discrepancy between the two numbers is due to federal “pass through” dollars for school districts, or “other funds” such as tuition payments that are paid by parents directly to state colleges, etc.

You should note that the budget is balanced, and it observes the proposed “inflation plus population growth” budget cap that the House has passed many times.

While certainly not exhaustive, here are a few of the notable spending items that will likely be of interest: $6.5 million to continue providing ID Theft monitoring to those affected by the 2012 security breach at the Department of Revenue; $23 million to provide a 1.5% raise for state employees (in my view, should have been at least twice that but done on merit); $57 million increase in state health insurance that will fund the entire premium increase, with a minor co-pay increase. We also have a fully funded Reserve Fund, as is constitutionally mandated. The “Base Student Cost” increased to $2120. This includes a new Education Finance Act (EFA) formula to direct more funding to lower income students and those needing specialized instruction. There is $17.7 million in new funding for charter schools as well as $12 million for new school buses. We have also funded new officers for SLED, the Highway Patrol, and Department of Natural Resources (DNR). We have also fully funded the state’s college scholarship funds, and added $4 million to promote efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability for our colleges.

Obviously, this is a small sample of the hundreds of budget items, with a complete listing at the abovementioned link.

Debate on the budget began Monday, March 10th at 1 p.m. You can watch the debate live at