During 40 years as a journalist, I've learned a few adjectives.
I'm amazed how many of the adjectives I've applied to the state's budgeting process this week start with the letter "S." Senseless. Stupid. Sad. Silly. Sorry.Once again, bubbles are bursting all over the place as Utah's Legislature faces up to revenue reality. Some of the money on which hours of appropriations deliberations were based was a mirage, the product of wishful thinking and an inability to know, before the fact, how much would really be in the pot.
If this were the first time, the legislators could be excused. That this madness continues year after year is insane. Somewhere along the way someone should get the message and revamp the process.
Appropriations subcommittees have spent weeks listening to the pleas of government agencies.
In the public education subcommittee, where I tend to spend a lot of my life during the annual session, the parade of dog-and-pony shows has dramatically demonstrated the real needs of educational programs.
Unquestionably the needs are real. Anyone who's been around Utah for any time at all knows that the state has the largest bunch of kids to educate, in relation to the number of taxpayers, of any state in the country.
Because they don't know how much money they will REALLY have to spend, it's easy for legislators to succumb to the urgency of these messages and make promises that, in the end, have to be snatched away again. Some of the generosity is politically motivated, to be sure. A legislator who champions budget causes is likely to be fondly remembered, even if he knew at the time that the money might not be there when the smoke cleared.
The education subcommittee, for instance, did some fancy figuring that would give special education and vocational education more money. Now, the only way they can hold to those promises will be to rob from the minimum school program, taking money from the bulk of the state's students to give to those with special needs.
It would save a lot of wear and tear on everyone involved if the Legislature went into session knowing how much money would be available. The time and emotional effort now spent on the recouping process at the end of each session could be more profitably used.
Sen. Dix McMullin has a bill that would require the Legislature to use figures on tax revenues through the end of September as a basis for budgeting. Those figures would be available late in the year, ready for the session in January.
The first year under this plan would take some adjustment. After that, there would be four quarters of financial data as a basis for budgeting - including the October-December figures that contain the taxes from the annual Christmas shopping frenzy.
It wouldn't stop the annual arm-wrestling among agencies over a finite amount of money. Committees would still have the opportunity to listen to the litany of needs. But when they took a stand, at least they'd have a solid foundation for their decisions, not a shifting sandpile of if-onlys, maybes and perhapses.
McMullin's proposal deserves some serious consideration - now, while the effects of the flawed process are fresh in everyone's minds. Legislators tend to be a lot like some pregnant women, who forget what labor is like and do it again.
Another alternative is to move the session forward a few weeks so the end-of-the-year figures will be available to the legislators. That has been tried before - unsuccessfully, for reasons I haven't been able to fathom.
Most of the legislators I've spoken with this week are frustrated and unhappy with the process. If they don't do something about it this year, I'll have to conclude they aren't as unhappy as they say they are.
In that event, we can look for repeats of the sorry mess we are slogging through at the moment.