Nelson Wants More Oversight of Budget—You Sure About That, Stace?

Senator Stace Nelson tells WNAX he’s unhappy about the state budget passed on Friday.

We should not be surprised: Stace Nelson has voted Nay on 80% of the state budgets presented to him (Aye in 2011, Nay in 2012, 20132014, and now 2017.)

Senator Nelson complained about the budget process at Saturday’s Scotland crackerbarrel:

That was a brand new bill yesterday. Voters didn’t have a chance to look at it. I didn’t have a chance to look through it thoroughly. Any legislator that says they looked through that bill thoroughly in the little bit of time we had might not be telling the whole truth [Sen. Stace Nelson, in “SD State Senator Stace Nelson Unhappy with Budget Process,” WNAX, 2017.03.13].

Senator Nelson elaborates on this complaint about the inscrutable budget process in an e-mail to KELO Radio:

SD’s $4.5 BILLION annual budget bill at about 2:20PM during the last two hours of session on the last day of session. Printed copies of the proposed new budget bill showed up on desks around 12:40ish, but we were still in and out of session debating bills. Before any legislator had any time to properly read, review, and verify the brand new annual budget bill with the budgetary information of the last 3 months, or the public to even do so, the bill was passed out of both chambers and everyone was gone by 4:37PM…. It was 31 pages long with vague accounting information that has to be cross referenced in order to see where the money is going. Let that sink in [Sen. Stace Nelson, in Todd Epp, “Legislative Procrastination on a $4.55 Billion Budget Is What a Teenager Might Do,” KELO Radio: Token Liberal, 2017.03.12].

Epp notes that rookie Representative Greg Jamison concurs to some extent with Senator Nelson about the relative rush and opacity of the state budget process, especially compared with the lengthier, more open budget process Jamison experienced as a Sioux Falls city councilman.

I understand why Senator Nelson would feel frustrated about the most important bill of the Session popping out of committee on the last day, leaving just enough for pat backs and vote before banging the gavel and running home. I agree in general with Senator Nelson about the need for transparency on every bill. No bill should emerge with amendment from committee a go to a floor vote unless legislators and regular citizens have had at least 24 hours to review the amended text.

Senator Stace Nelson with green eyeshade
Move to amend SB 178, page 27, line 50, add $377 for 105 green eyeshades….

I also share Senator Nelson’s frustration in trying to interpret the budget. The appropriations bill presents only the figures for the coming fiscal year. That’s all Senate Bill 178 really should say—a bill is the language to be enacted as law, not an econ/civics textbook. But it would be nice to have some notes attached to the bill allowing legislators and the rest of us to drill into the numbers and view comparisons to past years’ budgets.

However, I must defuse Senator Nelson’s critique with two responses, one technical, one practical.

We should note that the budget bill passed Friday was only technically a new bill. The first budget draft was posted on February 3 as Senate Bill 175. On Friday, March 10, the committee tabled that bill and put up a new budget in Senate Bill 178. However, 72% of the line-item dollar totals and 97% of the full-time job totals remains unchanged from the original draft. Thus, the great majority of line items in the budget presented to the full Senate and House for final votes on Friday had been available for review for 35 days.

The 52 line-item totals that did change cut the original $4.6-billion budget by just 1.1%. The five FTE changes in the new budget cut the original state workforce proposal from 13,862 to 13,858.8, a decrease of 0.02%.

Beyond the relative magnitude (parvitude?) of the changes, we should consider the work that produces the budget now and ask what work Senator Nelson wants the Legislature to do.

The 18 members of the Joint Appropriations Committee met 33 times and reviewed a truckload of documents (38 just under Education, 26 under Agriculture, 8 under Transportation…). Joint Appropriations filters out a lot of the debates that may take place.

If we really want to open the budget for a department-by-department, line-by-line, employee-by-employee debate, we may need to throw out the Legislative Budget Handbook and make everyone an Appropriator. Divide the Session in half: get all the silly bills and resolutions—guns, gays, GodTrumpism—out of the way in the first five weeks, then dedicate the last four weeks to nothing but the budget. Seat each legislator on one of a dozen subcommittees, each assigned two or three department budgets to hash out. Those subcommittees pass their recommendations to Joint Appropriations, which pieces everything together into a complete budget package, which goes to the Senate and House floors for at least one full week—and it will take that long—of tedious dollar-by-dollar debate as legislators throw spreadsheets at each other.

To certain individuals, that may sound like a lot of fun. But would Stace Nelson want to give up four weeks of stroking the South Dakota Gun Owners to work on nothing but numbers?

Just be careful what you wish for, Stace: keep talking about your desire to study the budget more in-depth, and your Pro-Tem pal may stick you on Appropriations next year!


32 Responses to Nelson Wants More Oversight of Budget—You Sure About That, Stace?

  1. I’m not exactly happy with the process either. We have 40 days to listen to every department justify why it needs X. Then we have to figure out what is most important. There just isn’t enough time to dig into everything that needs to be dug into.

    Short of a full time legislature or even 90 days session (3 30 day sessions) I’m not sure what we can do.

  2. MC, would a split Session, where the last 20 days are dedicated solely to budget, give you the time and focus to properly deal with the budget?

  3. Darin Larson

    Cory, let’s not mince words here. It is totally unacceptable for the legislature to drop a significantly revised major bill on the desk of legislators two hours before the vote, while they are working on finalizing other bills no less. A day or a week of advance notice would be fine.

    This is done for one main reason in my opinion: to maintain the authority of the legislative leadership to call the shots.

  4. I want to say yes, however, I’m not sure even 20 days is really enough.

    I would welcome a return of the sunset committee.

    A standing summer study, that looks in depth at each agency. one of the biggest issues is the agencies working together. Like the Department of Health and Social Services. In some places they are duplicating services and other areas are neglected.

  5. Darin makes a good point. We didn’t get the final bill dropped on our desks until just before the debate. While we all had a good idea what was in it, we didn’t know the details

  6. That lack of oversight seems problematic… but with the iron grip leadership has over the caucus, would a day or weekend of study have affected the outcome?

  7. Stace Nelson

    Mr “H,” Ockham’s razor… Wait to the last hours to introduce the budget bill, after a long session? Like trying to keep sheep in a bare lot after a long winter, when you open a pasture gate to lush spring grass.

    The least amount of bills in years, the lowest work load in years, and miraculously the budget bill is still formally introduced to legislators during the last hours of the last active day of session?

    MC’s candid comments underlines the terminal fault in the situation and it would create a seriously embarrassing situation if journalists were to ask the obvious questions of politicians who voted for the 31 page complicated bill after just receiving it.

    “Trust, but verify” is a Republican mantra, I guess some forgot about the verify part.

  8. Nick Nemec

    Maybe the Appropriations Committee could begin work a few days early when they could have committee meetings without interruption from other legislative activities then continue their work for the first part of the session and have the bill out to the floor a week prior to the end of session. Legislators would then have the ability to study the bill and compare it to previous appropriations bills.

    All it would take is a legislative rule requiring the bill be presented to the body X legislative days prior to adjournment of the session.

  9. Senator Nelson makes a reasonable point about workload: given the lower number of bills this year compared to previous years, one would expect that the Legislature would have had more time to get to the budget. But given that most Appropriators only serve on that committee or do dual duty on other committees that don’t meet as regularly, maybe the volume of bills coming to other committees and the floor don’t affect the workload of Joint Approps that much.

    I could live with Nick’s idea of starting Approps early. We get the Governor’s budget address in December; maybe bring Approps in that week to hear all the presentations from the various departments. Get all that information out there for a month before Session starts so everyone can look at it. Then when Session starts, Approps jumps right in to knocking the budget into shape. With an early start, they might have time to write a a couple supplementary budgets based on the “margin of error” BFM reports for their revenue projections. Hash out a “what if we’re high” and a “what if we’re low” alternative budget based on best-case and worst-case scenarios. Then when the February report comes in, pick and amend the closest budget and send it to the floor PDQ.

  10. Todd Kolden

    Since I became involved with state government 15 years ago I never understood the budget process as described…waiting until the final day when most everyone is chomping at the bit to get it done and go home.
    With that being said, not that this would help the budget process, I never understood either the procrastination that goes on throughout most of the session on the “go home” days, I.e. Thursdays and Fridays, when they defer the schedule to the next legislative day instead of working a full day and taking care of the “lower bills.”
    With the other thoughts posted previously on this post, I feel a set number of legislative days should be dedicated to the budget.

  11. BIll DIthmer

    Stace needs to revisit Gov RKs reorganization of the state. Some good, some bad. 1973 or there abouts.

    The Blindman

  12. When you look at where and how Stace lives his daily life in Pierre, it’s clear the guy has never dealt with big numbers on paper. I mean, only if a man can afford his own shower could he have the financial expertise offer grown ups a viable opinion on a +$4 billion state budget.

    Seriously. If a grown man lives one pay grade up from a homeless guy, how can you trust he could ever successfully move money around on paper? Or even a computer screen?

    Stace offering state budget advice is as fitting as a McDonalds employee advising McDonalds corporation on quarterly profits.

  13. Whenever anyone complained about the work of the Appropriations Committee, long-time Senate Appropriations Chairman Bill Grams just invited them to join the committee next year. He said in all the offers he made, he never got anyone to take him up on the offer. When asked who he’d kick off if someone took up his offer, he said getting volunteers to drop off won’t be a problem but it if it, he’ll just raise the number of committee members.

    When someone says it “gets dumped on them” they are implying all the legislators who listened to budget presentation after budget presentation (appropriations committee members put in more committee hours than anyone else) are lazy or somehow conspiring to pull something on their colleagues.

  14. Stace Nelson

    Adam & Troy, put your long knives away, knaves. The ides of March may inspire your treacherous nature, but reality thwarts your ingnorance. In your zeal to go after me, you slash Rep. Jamison, Todd Epp, MC, our host CAH, and a litany of others, before drawing nary a drop from the big ugly conservative from Fulton..

    I didn’t abdicate my duty or responsibilities over to the Appropriations Committee to decide on the budget issues for my district, Troy. Especially since conservatives are in such a minority in the legislature. There is absolutely no reason why details cannot be included in the annual budget Bill for ready reference by legislators and the public who pays the bills. There is absolutely no reason why it had to be entered during the last hours of the last day of session as a new bill.

    But you two go ahead and continue with your gnashing of teeth and trying to defend the indefensible, Gives some of us a good chuckle to see you with your underoos bunched up. ?

  15. Mr. Nelson is, on this topic, righter than right. I think dropping a 31 page law bill on the legislatures 2 hours before they vote on it is insaner than most. And these bills are all just numbers. Why can’t their staff spend some time typing up what the numbers are all for? Maybe Mr. Nelson should put one of those complaints he and Mr. Russell file to fix things on this bill and make the legislatures do it different next year. If he cannot, then his and our complaining is all just whining in the wind for naught. Or if he was on the committee that makes this bill then he could rail at them until they did this bidding.

  16. Stace,

    Read what I said real closely. Your thin skin thinks everything is about you. It’s not. I don’t believe the Appropriations Members are part of a conspiracy to pull the wool over your eyes. Don’t quite get that I’m slashing others before I get to you. Are you asserting they are protecting you? I’m not trying to slash anyone but seems someone is rather sensitive.

    Reality:

    1) The Appropriations Committee members have more hours in meeting than other legislators. They work very hard trying to get you a budget.
    2) If you wanted to work that hard or Appropriations was your principal interest, you could ask to be on the Appropriations Committee.
    3) Unless you are willing to join the Appropriations Committee or willing to work several hours every night in your room watching recorded testimony and reading all the information, you will not be as informed as the Appropriations Members and thus do delegate to them in general. To believe otherwise is to believe you can come up to speed equal to them with less time and effort. Do you believe your are that much smarter than them?
    4) If you have a particular item in the budget you want to monitor, nothing or nobody stops you.

    Questions:

    1) Are you asserting the Appropriations Members purposely are waiting until the last minute with nefarious motives? Sure is a lot of members of the committee pulling off that conspiracy which as a former law enforcement officers getting that much cooperation in a conspiracy takes a lot of talent. If that is your assertion and you are correct, you gotta give the Appropriations Committee members a lot of credit for being able to pull that off.
    2) If you aren’t impugning the integrity of the Appropriations Members, do you have a proposed solution for your colleagues to consider?
    3) And, if you have a proposal, what is it and have you asked your colleagues why that isn’t already implemented since you are at least the 100th legislator to make the same whine in the last 35 years?

  17. Mr. Jones, could Mr. Nelson keep his current committees and just volunteer to go to the Appropriations Members committee those 6 or 9 hours each week he is not assigned to a committee? He could sit in the room every day and monitor what is going on and even skip his regular committees on days items important to Fulton come up just like he would skip his regular committees on days when gun bills came up. He could be a volunteer member of that group very easily. Or is that not allowed? If it is allowed and he is not doing it then he is just a whiner.

  18. The cheap personal attack on Nelson’s lifestyle habits is irrelevant to the validity of his critique of the budget process. To suggest that someone who is poor or who lives frugally is not qualified to evaluate a budget runs counter to the democratic spirit of this blog.

    I have lived on low income at a variety of points in my life. I don’t think having low income has negatively affected my intellect or civic spirit.

    Conversely, Donald Trump has never lived anywhere near poverty, and he clearly doesn’t know jack about public budgeting or other policy.

  19. Troy’s critique is more on the mark, aligning with what I said about what sort of oversight of the budget we really want. Troy’s anecdote gives me the impression there isn’t stiff competition to get on Appropriations. Anyone who wants to be a total budget hawk appears to have that opportunity.

    The question stands: short of joining Appropriations, what sort of oversight do we want every legislator to exercise over the budget? Are aspiring budget hawks like Nelson willing to drop everything else for four weeks and talk about nothing but budget?

  20. Darin Larson

    Troy’s critique misses the mark by a country mile. His response is either you have to be on appropriations (which obviously 105 people can’t all be on the appropriations committees) or you should just trust that the bill that has been put before you a matter of minutes before the vote on the last day is a good bill. Oh, and by the way, if you want to amend it, you are holding the entire legislature hostage from going home after two and a half months.

    And Cory, why does it have to be four weeks of nothing but budget or mere minutes on the final day? I would settle for one week or two weeks–anything more than the last minutes of the last day.

    No business would operate like this: Some of the most important issues affecting our state are left for the last minute in a take it or leave it posture. Arguably the most important decisions affecting our state are left for last with virtually no time for amendment or meaningful debate.

    This is done purposefully. It is no accident that the major budget pieces of legislation are left to the last minute on the last day every legislative session. If it is done purposefully, there must be a reason. The obvious one is that it limits dissent from the public and other legislators that are not well-placed in leadership.

    Cory, you are focused on the legislators and their lack of time to consider major spending issues is egregious enough. What about the public and their chance to provide input into the budget making process and the end results? Does the public truly get a meaningful chance for input into the budget? The answer is obviously “NO!”–the public has even less chance for input than the legislators.

  21. 105 of the legislatures can’t be on local government group either, but yet when they trust Mr. Nelson in his committee processes to vet out law bills and stand on the floor and say “this bill got a good solid spanking and came out on top and you should vote for it” those other fellows trust that he and his fellows did their jobs.

    Is anybody expecting that what is good for the Agriculture or Local Government Goose is not good enough for the Budget Goose? I am just asking, because I know it really irks some of you when ol’ grudznick knows more about the math than some of you French fellows, and I have out debated almost all of you at one point or another this year.

  22. Mr. Larson does have a point where he is perhaps missing the question. Maybe these decisions are all made well before the end of the legislatures and are choreographed to the point of charade, and even Mr. Nelson is made a mocking fool for not knowing what happens outside his own caucuses.

    I’m just sayin…

  23. Mr. H, I think I already asked Mr. Jones the question you asked at 18:55. Ol’ grudz is on this, and has emailed Mr. Nelson with the steps he needs to take to move closer to relevance. You’re welcome.

  24. Darin,

    Since you think this is done on purpose (delayed to the last minute), I suggest you ask the Democrats on the Appropriation Committee if they believe this. Unlike all other committees at the start of session who are waiting for bills to be introduced and scheduled for committee, Appropriations Committee starts day 1 and goes non-stop through the session. As Cory noted at the start, they begin working off the Governor’s Budget which is provided to ALL legislators and available to the public the first week in December.

    Because maybe 90% of the Budget is close to on auto-pilot (unless we are going to close Universities, end State-aid, and stop building roads), much of the work of Appropriations is over-sight of the Executive Branch where they listen to and critique agencies when they present their budget request. To large degree, changes are made at the margin (as Cory noted at the top).

    The “controversy” is generally on Special Appropriations which include most of the areas where the Legislature adjusts the Governor’s Budget and funds legislative priorities. However, until the Committee formalizes the rest of the budget, they don’t know how much is available for Special Appropriations. Thus, usually the underlying gripe of those not on the Committee- They don’t know the Special Appropriations until the last minute.

    Darin, if you think the above is a conspiracy, I disagree and I defend all the legislators (Republican and Democrat) who accept the responsibility to perform this hard and in many ways boring green shade work.

    The members who are on this committee already meet significantly more hours (I may be wrong but I remember it to be over double but it certainly could be three or four times as much because they meet every day all morning) than those who aren’t on on Appropriations. (which may be why the committee isn’t “first choice” for most legislators).

    Yes, I suppose all the other Legislators who don’t put in the work required of Appropriations can say to those on the Committee- “Get your work done a week earlier as I don’t care if instead of starting your day at 8 a.m. that you have start meeting at 6:30 a.m. or 7:00 am to meet my deadline. I know you’d maybe like to delay the start of full session but that would make me have to stay past 5:00. I’ll bring you a cup of coffee when I get to the Capitol at 9 a.m.” This will make Appropriations even less attractive than it already is.

    Regarding public input, the public is more than welcome to be there when the particular areas of concern are discussed. Unlike other committees, Appropriations posts their agenda and sticks to it better than most committees. The particular agencies are there. Other interested parties are there. The other committees post 5 bills on the agenda and if the first bill takes all the time, everything else just gets pushed.

  25. Legislators get regular updates almost everyday on the budget process. Before the bill hits our desk we already have a good idea who is getting what. It is not like ‘Surprise! here’s the budget, we vote in five minutes.’

  26. Darin, if a split-session is warranted, I’m not wedded to any particular length of time—four weeks, two weeks, whatever. We might give non-Approps legislators and the general public more opportunity for budget review and input if, instead of my 5/4 split, we go 8/1: run Session mostly like normal, but require final disposition of all bills and Approps submission of final budget bill by Legislative Day 35; take a two-week break, then bring everyone back not just for Veto Day but Budget Week, the last five Legislative Days spent hashing out the budget on the floor.

    But note what Rep. Clark tells us: he got budget updates every day. I assume if he had budget concerns, he could go have lunch with his favorite appropriators and lobby for changes.

    The question remains: just how much practical involvement does every legislator and every citizen want to have in crafting the state budget? I spent a good couple hours yesterday producing my very high-level (that’s modern management-speak for “superficial”, “lacking detail”) analysis of the budget, and that was with the Session done, with no committee hearings or floor debates competing for my attention. I agree we should open more doors for participation, but how many legislators and citizens will come through those doors?

  27. Cory,

    That is why I posted what I did the first time. Bill Grams always talked about the legislators who wanted to second-guess the people who did the work but never took him up on the offer to get on the committee. No non-appropriator legislator works harder than the lowest totem pole Appropriator.

    I think too there is a perception that every discussion is about millions for this and/or millions for that when the reality is shifting $50K from here over hear and banking an FTE here and there until they have 20 to move over here. Real green shade stuff and not a lot of partisan bickering.

  28. Darin Larson

    Troy, yes, I’m sure it is just pure coincidence that the appropriations process ends on the final day of session every year and not a day or two or a week earlier. They apparently have exactly the same amount of work to fill the allotted time each year and no more and no less. I need to talk to you about a bridge that I would like to sell you, cheap.

    If you think that by my critique I’m blaming the one Democrat on House appropriations or the 2 Democrats on Senate appropriations, I would ask you to explain how one or two people out of nine have any power to set the appropriations committee schedule or any real power to effect change. Let’s be real here: This is a system designed and maintained by the Republicans to fit their status quo.

    A very select group of people within the legislature along with the governor are calling the budgetary shots. That is the fact of the matter. Call it a conspiracy if you want, but I just call it bad government.

    There are very little big picture discussions of what our priorities as a state should be and how we should go about carrying them out. Instead, we have discussions akin to how to rearrange the deck chairs on the titanic.

    There is also very little public input in what should be an important conversation about our priorities. If all of the big decisions get made at the last minute each year, then how does the public have any chance for input?

    MC, where are these budget updates that you were getting and why doesn’t the public have ready access to them?

  29. Darin,

    1) I didn’t assert Dems had any power to set the schedule. I asked you to ask them if this is a planned conspircacy.
    2) You obviously are spouting out about something in which you have no experience. But, that doesn’t stop you from babbling.

    Darin: “A very select group of people within the legislature along with the governor are calling the budgetary shots.” The Governor’s Budget is provided in early December. You and every other Legislator has over 90 days to raise any issue you want. The schedule when that item will be discussed is known. If you or another legislator doesn’t speak up, don’t blame anyone but yourself.

    Darin: “There are very little big picture discussions of what our priorities as a state should be and how we should go about carrying them out.” I will repeat myself. The Governor provides his Budget in early December. You can babble about your priorities all year long and then get legislators to fight for your priorities from December until the session ends.

    “Darin: “If all of the big decisions get made at the last minute each year, then how does the public have any chance for input?” The most uniformed statement on the thread. The big decisions are laid out in December. They are discussed the entire session. They are voted on the last day.

    I’ll let MC answer the question you ask of him.

  30. Darin,
    the budget updates that I get are for the most part what is in the Governor’s budget. and just about everything I got can be found on the LRC website. http://sdlegislature.gov/Committee_On_Appropriations/Reference_Documents/default.aspx I don’t get the pretty pictures I just get a summery.

    If you ask your legislator for an update during session I’m sure they can can get you what you need

  31. Darin Larson

    Troy, judging by the tenor of your attacks on bearcreekbat in the last week, your dog must of died or something. I’m going to ignore your petty attacks against me and stick to the issues, if you don’t mind.

    Troy says “The big decisions are laid out in December. They are discussed the entire session. They are voted on the last day.”

    Ok, let’s look at this in terms of k12 funding. The governor laid out a 1% increase for k12 education funding in December. They had a couple of hearings in appropriations that could not have taken more than an hour or two in total with regard to k12 funding that set the funding increase at 0%. The House went along with the 0%, but the Senate fought to restore the funding increase to .3%. The debates with regard to k12 funding could not have taken up more than two hours of time on the house and senate floors. Then the conference committee met in private and worked out a deal for the .3%. All told the consideration for education funding in SD comprised no more than 6 hours of time in the committee hearings and floor debates. I’m guessing if we went back and timed it all out it was quite a bit less than six hours, but it is a generous approximation.

    So, out of 35 days of session, the legislature in total devoted 3/4ths of a day to consideration of education funding. More troubling to me is the fact that most of the 6 hours was in the last few days before session ended.

    You claimed the big issues are discussed the entire session. Where were these discussions the entire session and where was the opportunity for public input on the discussions?

    I must have missed the discussions you were seeing. Do I need to go to the Longbranch, the Legion, Bob’s or another drinking establishment to get in on the discussion?

  32. MC, you have access to a blog. You could upload those updates every evening to keep the voters informed. Such updates would certainly be more enlightening and comment-worthy than the image-conscious press releases from your blog’s sponsors.