Imagine the state suddenly said you could fire your tax preparer. This year, they’ll assume your situation hasn’t really changed since last year. All you need to do is send a check for the same amount you paid last year, plus a little extra for inflation and the cost of doing business.
Of course, lawmakers would never let you get away with that. They want to know exactly how much of your hard-earned tax dollars they can spend. The state expects you to explain, in detail, everything you did this year that could increase or decrease the amount you owe.
Unfortunately, the Legislature isn't held to the same standard when it drafts the annual state budget — which you pay for with your tax dollars. It's basically an edited version of the same document that gets dusted off year to year. Budget writers start with last year's allotment and add and subtract to fit available revenue.
With small exceptions, the current budget process boils down to lawmakers stretching and growing dollars to cover the same old programs. Department heads and special interests advocate for increases at budget hearings, but they're not asked to start from scratch and justify every dollar spent.
Lawmakers want taxpayers to have confidence that each dollar is justified and well spent. But with this much spending — the House version of the budget released this week tops out at $39.5 billion — there's a lot of "stuff" baked in and carried over year to year. It's hard to believe every budgetary ingredient is still needed as much as it always was.
Lawmakers should be required to rebuild the state budget from the ground up. They should take a page from the private sector and try a tactic that's used to bring ungainly budgets under control by forcing a clearing out of the cobwebs. It's called zero-based budgeting.
Here's how it could work: Once every few years, lawmakers would reset budget accounts to zero. Department heads would have to justify every penny, every program, and every paper clip in their desired appropriation. Budgets would be written without regard to what was spent previously, but rather with an eye only toward what is essential for the coming years.
This approach would tailor the budget to present needs, accounting for changing dynamics between education, transportation, and other important concerns. Eliminating duplication and waste could make room for increases in priority items.
No doubt, zero-based budgeting would make a lot of jobs harder. Lawmakers would have to start crafting a budget from a blank slate instead of just filling in the blanks from last year's budget. Special interests would not only have to work toward an increase in their line item or earmark, but also provide justification for the expenditures in the first place. Poor past performance would have to be explained or funding would be jeopardized.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle have filed legislation to implement zero-based budgeting in the past, but the idea has never reached fruition. Anything that causes extra work for lawmakers faces a tough road.
But taxpayers work hard for their money each year, which funds the massive state budget. Maybe it's time for state budget writers to face the same scrutiny taxpayers face.
Meredith Warren is a Republican political analyst and consultant.