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Barney Bishop: State budget process needs a CBIR step again

Much has been written about Gov. Rick Scott’s vetoes of member projects in the recent state budget. Although every governor has vetoed parts of the budget, this time was unusual because the governor had only a very short window to make his vetoes known.
Although he vetoed a lot of projects, it does raise a legitimate issue of whether such items should be vetoed simply because they’re member projects.

Florida TaxWatch, of whose board of trustees I’m a proud member, believes that “turkeys” as they’re referred to in the group’s annual Turkey Watch Report, are those inserted at the last minute without appropriate scrutiny or in circumstances in which a department didn’t recommend the appropriation.

These are appropriate concerns, and they’ve been well-vetted and tested through the decades.

However, I’ve always respectfully disagreed with the idea that only agency heads should be able to put such projects into the state budget. Inasmuch as legislators are elected to represent their districts, they know much better than any appointed department head what’s most needed in their community.

 Indeed, if it was left strictly to the agencies there would be no member projects.  While that may sound fiscally responsible to many, it misses one large point: Legislators are constitutionally bound to craft the budget, and as such they should also be able to insert projects that would benefit their constituents, so long as they’re publicly reviewed.

Then-Senate President Ken Pruitt, during Gov. Jeb Bush’s second term, created a sheet that many of us lobbyists who attempt to put projects into the budget believe should be resurrected: Community Budget Issue Requests (CBIRs).

The form asked for a lot of specific information that any appropriator should be asking. It included the name of the project, the requested amount, for recurring or non-recurring dollars, for services or fixed capital outlay, success statistics on the program outcomes, among many other questions.

The process worked extremely well and the information was provided to both the Senate and House appropriations staffs for their files, along with the Office of Policy and Budget.

I mention all of this because House Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Corcoran created a similar sheet this past legislative session, and though it was a new extra step in the process, it did provide House approps staff with uniform information to help gauge the worthiness of a particular project.

If the Senate would adopt such a form as well, it could lead us to a new version of the CBIRs and also be helpful to the governor’s OPB staff.

The news media has reported that Gov. Scott’s OPB staff is requesting accounting information from all of the various organizations that were approved for this fiscal year.

That’s exactly what the governor’s office should be doing since it’s his responsibility to insure that taxpayers’ money is spent as advertised and that it leads to the projected outcomes needed as a worthy project.

Since Scott has said he’s responsible to all of our citizens to make sure the money is spent wisely, this is an important step forward to obtain information his office needs to judge the effectiveness of programs.

As the same time, it’s always difficult to justify a program in terms of the state’s needs because almost all programs are locally based. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a statewide purpose, but it does mean extrapolations of the statewide benefit are sometimes stretched pretty thin.

Nevertheless there are programs at the local level with the potential to have a statewide impact. The efficacy of a pilot program has the potential to demonstrate what a statewide effort would achieve and any kinks could be worked out before it’s expanded.

That’s why it’s so important to have local member projects. There are many innovative and exciting ideas, but it doesn’t make sense to try them out on a statewide basis until the local model can show success. It’s the same argument that governors often make with the federal government, that the states are the laboratories for creative ideas.

The chance that an agency head is going to be looking hither and yon to put innovative projects in local areas across the state is probably not going to happen given their basic budget needs.

Member projects, though, come through a time-honored process that allows state legislators — who know their districts better than anyone — to insert items into the budget to provide for their district’s needs.

However, such projects have to be justified to provide transparency and accountability. That could be accomplished by once again having CBIRs at the front end of the process to answer those questions. Kudos to Representative Corcoran for re-instituting a process that accomplishes those two goals on the House side.

Because we have a constitutional system of checks and balances we’re always going to have a governor who has the option of using their veto to dismiss member projects. That’s their constitutional duty.

A formal process to submit information to all three entities during the process will go a long way to making this a better budget process for elected officials and the public.

While all of us who submit member projects sincerely appreciate what the Senate and House presiding officers did on the last pass in late June, it appeared to be a last-minute effort to get a bunch of projects into the budget without sufficient oversight, and that’s never a good thing.

Let’s go back to a CBIR-like system where everyone has a chance to put their wants on the table – and take responsibility for sponsoring a project – and then let Governor Scott do his job. We may not always like his choices, but in the end, it’s his job to do, and he is entitled to the final say.

Barney Bishop III is CEO of Barney Bishop Consulting LLC in Tallahassee and the former President & CEO of Associated Industries of Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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