The budget of any entity as large as Washington’s state government is necessarily complex. It often takes new legislators a while to grasp the scope of it – the agencies large and small, how the money flows in and out, and how the various pots of money are allowed to be spent. It’s complicated enough that only a handful of budget-focused legislators know state spending down to its granular details.
Given the complexity of the budget – and the fact that legislators’ budget votes are the most consequential they take – it might surprise you that the Legislature has no dedicated budget office, like Congress does. The House and Senate budget committees have staff to help guide them, but the Legislature as a whole (most members, after all, are not on the budget committees) does not have access to the kind of information and analysis it may want.
A small part of HB 2830, which is mainly focused on more robust “dynamic” fiscal impact statements, calls for studying the need for a legislative fiscal office. There is a budget department in the governor’s office, but it is naturally focused on the governor’s wants. Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center writes, “The creation of an independent non-partisan legislative budget office is not an indictment of the executive budget office but instead is an understanding that the Governor’s budget office exists to focus on the executive’s priorities.”
It might strike some as duplicative to set up a separate legislative budget office, but it matters who controls the office. Legislators should have their own budget office, with staff they appoint and trust, to answer their questions and analyze their priorities, not the governor’s.
A weird imbalance
Additionally, a legislative budget office’s analysis would be conducted within the framework of a balanced four-year budget outlook. I bring that up because state law requires the Legislature to pass budgets that balance over four years. The governor, however, is under no such restriction in his budget proposals.
The result is that governors can propose, as Gov. Inslee did this year, “freebie” budgets that balance over two years but not four. That allows governors to make fun promises to supporters in their proposals, which the Legislature could not then pass in the same form without violating the law that requires a four-year balance.
That’s ultimately not helpful. We don’t need more promises that state government can’t actually keep. As legislators ponder a better budget process, perhaps they should consider ways to end that imbalance.