Throughout my time in the Legislature I have observed House members struggle with their inability to achieve meaningful oversight over state agencies.
Here is how the public component of the legislative oversight has mostly been conducted:
At the start of session, Appropriations Subcommittee members spend twenty to thirty minutes on a hearing of each state agency's budget request. Nothing happens for several months while the most powerful legislators conduct closed-door negotiations with agencies, other legislators and the Governor's staff. With just a few days remaining in the session, legislative leaders emerge from behind the scenes and announce a "budget deal" and go to work lining up votes for the budget by telling legislators, "Either vote for the budget or we will be forced to call a special session which will cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars and make the Legislature appear weak in the eyes of the public."
It is a terrible system because it affords legislators little official standing in the budget process and puts them on the sideline for nearly all of the legislative session.
This year our House leadership officials are signaling that things might be different. Earlier this month we witnessed a potentially transformational change in the way the House of Representatives will conduct this year's appropriations process.
On the 3rd of January, on the House floor, the House Appropriations Chairman called to order a legislative hearing of the Department of Education and its budget.
Nearly seven hours later, the hearing ended after education officials endured numerous questions. The length of the hearing allowed many legislators to question the department and push past the soundbites and political speak that dominated the shorter, mostly meaningless budget hearings of the past.
Legislators actually started to drill down to real budget facts.
These findings appear to have resulted in a significant awareness within the House members. For the first time, legislators have been empowered with actual facts and figures. They are now equipped to push past the non-specific simplistic, budgeting policy such as, "Let's give education more money," and are instead prepared to examine the specifics of how already-appropriated education money could be better spent.
Empowered with this knowledge, members will likely insist the budget become more member-centric and taxpayer-responsible than in previous budget years.
It is an important and encouraging first step in the transformation of the state budget process.