A two-year budget cycle might give the Kansas Legislature new tools to streamline state government.
When it comes to money, it's almost always advantageous to look at the big picture.
That's why a proposal to return some state agencies to a two-year budget cycle deserves some serious consideration this year by the Kansas Legislature.
The plan, promoted by Rep. Rochelle Chronister, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, would require 54 state agencies to submit budget estimates for two-year periods. They also would have the opportunity to ask for adjustments of the budget approved the previous year. The agencies covered by the bill include the attorney general's office, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Kansas Human Rights Commission, the Kansas Parole Board, the secretary of state's office, the governor's office, the Legislature, the state treasurer's office, the insurance department and the Kansas Arts Commission. Areas with what are considered to be more volatile budgets -- such as human services and education -- aren't included.
Some legislators are skeptical of the plan, which is similar to the way the state considered all budgets 30 years ago when the Legislature only met for a full session every other year. The skeptics say they doubt the two-year budgets will streamline the budget process or reduce the amount of time the Legislature spends on it.
Time is an issue, but it probably is not the primary reason to consider two-year budgeting. More important is to give the Legislature a longer-term view of where state money is going. It's only good business to do a little long-range budget planning, instead of hashing out budgets in an all-night cram session as the Legislature is known for doing.
The agencies targeted for the two-year process should be able to predict their needs fairly accurately for two years in advance. Salaries are the biggest item on many of the budgets, and, in most cases, they can be projected relatively easily. If the Legislature passes a bill that significantly increases the workload or duties of an office, budget supplements can be approved accordingly.
In addition to requiring two-year budgets, the bill also requires the agencies to provide a full explanation of any new or expanded services included in the budget and to project the costs of those programs for the next three fiscal years. That process would allow legislators to get a better idea of long-range costs of a new service or program. It's important to know how much it will cost to start up a program, but it's even more important to have an idea how much it's going to cost to maintain that program over the long haul.
Two-year budgets might also give legislators a new tool to force agencies to reduce questionable spending. It seems likely that agencies now apologize for a certain expenditure in the budget and promise to try to do better next year in order to gain approval of the item this year. In a two-year process, legislators could give the agency a little added incentive to improve efficiency by approving the expenditure for one year but reducing it in the next.
Some would argue that the state also should consider two-year budgets for areas such as higher education. Such planning might make it more likely that longer-range programs like the proposed Partnership for Excellence, aimed at raising faculty salaries at Kansas Board of Regents universities, will receive the multi-year funding they are promised. Legislatures can't commit future legislatures to specific funding, but if the budgets already are on the books, it might increase the chances that the money will be made available.
A two-year budget process may reduce the time the Legislature has to spend on budget matters, which, in itself, might save taxpayers money. But more important than the time, is the ability it might give legislators to look down the road at ways to streamline the operation of state agencies.