Senator Stace Nelson tells WNAX he’s unhappy about the state budget passed on Friday.
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.
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, God, Trumpism—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!