Republicans Struggle to Find Smart Way to Budget

“Starving the beast” is a popular conservative approach to governance.

“If they (legislators) don’t have the money, they can’t spend it,” one Republican operative explained, strongly endorsing this approach.

True enough, but as another longtime Mississippi leader told me, “‘Starve the beast’ is not a smart way to govern, in fact, it isn’t governing at all.”

Also true.

Supposedly, Republicans in charge of state government are seriously pursuing a smart way to govern. No, not the “working groups” announced by legislative leaders last week.

The long awaited performance-based budgeting and management system, first announced by the Legislature in 1994, would identify wasteful and ineffective programs whose funding could be re-allocated to programs that evidence says work. In other words, it would allow legislators to make smart, evidence-based budget decisions.

But, not yet.

Three and a half years ago, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn created a partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to develop an analytical system to support performance-based budgeting. The Legislature’s PEER Committee was assigned tasks to develop a state strategic plan, a comprehensive inventory of programs and costs, and performance measures and targets. The PEER Committee was to gather data to assess program performance. The Pew-MacArthur model was to calculate cost-benefit ratios for assessed programs.

Last year, the PEER Committee produced a comprehensive guide to ’splain performance-based budgeting to legislators. It included interesting results from a pilot application of the new model.

Unfortunately, it also showed this smarter budgeting approach remains many years away from fruition.  That leaves us with “starve the beast.”

The problem with this approach is that it starves important and essential programs.

Thus, deferred repairs to roads and bridges will continue to reach crisis status while hundreds of millions of dollars go for non-urgent building projects and tax cuts. The Department of Health will eliminate clinics and maternity services and the Department of Mental Health psychiatric beds and addiction units while less important and non-essential programs continue to operate. And so on.

As one of my more conservative friends commented, “Roads and bridges are wonderfully simple examples, but there are so many other areas that need to be functional.”

Quite frankly, the first thing that needs to become functional is the legislature’s basic budget process. Turned murky and complicated by the horribly misnamed “Budget Transparency and Simplification Act,” the budget process this past session featured pretend appropriations bills that were rammed through by leadership to get the bills past deadlines and into six-man conference committees. Leadership then allowed these committees to meet in secret, contrary to the rules. To cap it off, the committee-approved bills with real numbers were not given to members until the last minute, providing them with little opportunity for review or rebuttal.

Not a smart way to govern. Nor is starving the beast.

It’s possible the Legislature’s new working groups could turn things around. But, in Mississippi, politics trumps smart nearly every time.

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