Budget needs: transparency, leadership

At issue | June 14 commentary by Dave Adkisson, "Sound budgeting in tough times; legislature protected business, aided economy"

When I started teaching some four decades ago, I was accused of being a hard grader. I guess that charge still stands because, unlike Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's Dave Adkisson, I don't think the General Assembly should make the honor roll for its handling of the budget.

We agree with Adkisson that our elected legislative leaders and the governor faced a daunting task in crafting a budget. We share Adkisson's view that providing smoking cessation programs and maintaining SEEK funding are the right budget decisions to make.

However, he failed to recognize one key detail: The needs of Kentuckians are increasing just when the recession means the state has less money to provide essential programs.

Policy-makers managed to pass a budget that avoided substantial cuts to certain priority areas, including education and health. Yet Kentucky still lacks a balanced approach to the budget that includes adequate funding to support strong preventative programs and make other investments that will help Kentucky's families and our economy prosper as we emerge from the recession.

The perennial debate about our state budget will likely produce disagreement due to deeply held philosophical differences about government's role in society and the role of taxation. However, there are other areas where broad-based agreement is just as certain. Those are where we should begin in the 2011 session.

One of those common-ground issues is transparency. Kentuckians have every right to expect a budget process that plays out in the light of day rather than behind closed conference room doors. We should expect a process in which the commonwealth's leaders have accurate and complete information. There are a number of ideas already introduced which can begin the path toward a more transparent approach in Frankfort.

For example, policy-makers can take an important step to manage our scarce tax revenues responsibly.

House Joint Resolution 122 directed the Legislative Research Commission to study the effectiveness of economic-development incentive programs.

After this legislation passed the House unanimously, it languished in Senate committees and was not included in the call for the special session. We hope the Chamber of Commerce and other groups join Kentucky Youth Advocates as we insist that legislators pass this measure in 2011 as preparation for the inevitably tough budget deliberations of 2012.

The time has come for economic-development tax breaks to be reviewed for their results and cost-effectiveness, just like any other government program. Which tax breaks need to be expanded and deepened because of their effectiveness? And which ones need to be eliminated because they are not paying promised dividends?

As the Herald-Leader's own series about this issue illustrated, no one really knows. The report would allow legislators and all Kentuckians to understand which incentives foster the economic growth of the commonwealth and which drain revenues. Only then can we make responsible decisions about the best use of Kentucky's tax dollars.

Parliamentary changes represent another opportunity for moving toward transparency. In 2009, 14 representatives filed House Resolution 10, calling for rules changes to how committees are formed. That particular legislation would have prohibited any chair of a standing committee or legislative leadership from serving on the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, creating a more objective process for decision-making.

It also would have prohibited legislative leadership from negotiating the budget behind closed doors, placing the negotiation powers back in the hands of the members of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee. These negotiations would take place in open, public meetings, ensuring that the focus is moving the general good forward and not simply bringing the bacon back home.

We do not have to put up with conflicts of interest, a cloak of secrecy and timing that inevitably results in a last-minute rush to judgment. These kinds of practices may be Kentucky's tradition, but they do not need to be Kentucky's future. Simple parliamentary changes like those introduced in 2009 would begin to move us toward a more open and transparent process to decide how and where the people's money is spent.

Getting an "A" from a hard grader always means more than receiving an easy pass. A genuine commitment from elected leaders to creating a more informed and transparent budget process will get those high marks from Kentucky Youth Advocates, to be sure, but also from every voter who believes in the right to know what is happening in Frankfort.