Should the State’s Budget Process be Reformed?

In an opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun (limited free views available), Ron Wineholt, Vice President for Government Affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, discusses the need for budget process reform.  Mr. Wineholt argues that the policy changes incorporated into omnibus bills that are intended to raise revenues or reduce state expenditures should really be considered as separate bills on their own merits.

Over the past 20 years, governors and General Assemblies have developed a bad habit of stuffing all sorts of loosely related spending and tax provisions into a catch-all bill called the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, or BRFA. The recent special session saw not only a BRFA bill but also a State and Local Revenue and Financing Act (SLRFA) packed with multiple forms of tax increases.

Maryland’s constitution has required since 1851 that “every Law enacted by the General Assembly shall embrace but one subject.” The purpose of this requirement has been to allow legislators to consider each issue independently, on its own merits. It also affords the public a greater opportunity to provide meaningful input on each issue pending before the General Assembly. The use of such omnibus bills as the BRFA and SLRFA damages the transparency of the legislative process and violates the intent of the single-subject rule of the Maryland Constitution.

Although most legislators do not recall an era without BRFA bills, our state managed to have budgets enacted for more than 200 years without such a device. The normal budgetary process until the early 1990s was that the governor would submit a budget, and if the amount of the budget exceeded projected revenues, specified appropriations would be contingent on the enactment of separate legislation. If the separate legislation failed, the contingent appropriations would also fail.

In 1991, Maryland’s attorney general surprised many by blessing the process embodied by the BRFA bill, thereby consolidating into one bill dozens of unrelated issues that are intended to reduce state expenditures or raise revenues necessary to balance the budget. Most legislative sessions of the past decade have seen a BRFA, and the bill has grown to the breaking point.

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