"This has to be a mistake!"
That was my first thought as I stared up at the monitor in the Appropriations Committee hearing room.
The committee was just starting to consider the 2018 appropriations bill -- a bill that was supposed to be House Bill 2401; however, the screen informed those of us on the committee that Senate Bill 860 was now before us for consideration.
Senate Bill 860 was not the appropriations bill. It was a bill dealing with "claims and payrolls and specifying certain duty of the Director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services."
And it wasn't on the committee's agenda for that night.
I told myself that committee officials had mistakenly posted the wrong bill and they would figure out their mistake soon enough.
I had much more pressing matters to deal with. Just six minutes earlier, a House budget official had emailed the draft of the $6.9B appropriations bill.
Even though I was a member of the Appropriations Committee, this was the first time that I had seen the proposal; a proposal to spend 6.9B dollars of your money!
In just a few minutes I would be asked to vote on the bill.
In that time, I scrolled quickly through page after page, trying to get some sense of what was being proposed.
Were pork earmarks in the bill?
How much raiding of the county and Department of Transportation funds would occur this year?
Would this budget continue the determinantal policy of funding recurring expenses with one-time revenues; a terrible habit that has built in an automatic yearly appropriations deficit of about 600M dollars each year since 2015?
I would challenge anyone to read through the appropriations bill and try to answer these questions within the few minutes we were given.
It is impossible!
And it wasn't as if we could ask the committee chairman to give us answers to these questions in any substantive detail because committee officials allowed for just a few basic questions before cutting off debate and forcing the vote.
In previous years, budget officials had provided legislators with documents that summarized the appropriations proposal. These spreadsheets allowed committee members to know in advance what to expect in the actual bill. This allowed them to ask questions based on the policy impact of the proposals.
Instead of being able to ask questions about the merits of the proposal, committee members asked questions such as:
"Where are the spreadsheets that show what this budget is doing?" and
"Do you feel that this process is an acceptable method of considering the state budget?"
I give credit to the committee chairperson who, in a remarkable moment of candor and honesty not frequently seen in the capitol world, answered the latter question honestly and admitted this was not an acceptable process.
But that didn't stop committee members from standing by their decision to cut off debate and force the vote.
During the effort to figure out just a few of the specifics of the budget proposal, I eventually took note of the fact that committee officials were not fixing what I had assumed to be a mistake.
Senate Bill 860 remained on the board -- and stayed on the board until the vote was called.
To this day I don't know why budget officials thought it acceptable to put the appropriations bill inside a "payroll" bill. I would later learn that Senate Bill 860 was posted to the committee agenda at some point AFTER the committee meeting had commenced.
Worse, after the conclusion of the meeting, we would also realize that the draft of the appropriations bill that had been provided to us was not the draft of the actual appropriations bill -- but had actually been a separate budget proposal.
When committee members approved this year's budget bill, they did so without ever reading the bill.
In case there is any doubt, you should know that I voted "No!" on the proposal.