Making Earmarks Public

 PERSONAL FUNDING REQUESTS SHOULDN’T BE ANONYMOUS

A vast amount of money, but you know virtually nothing about what’s being spent, or why. That’s not because you’re uninformed – the state budget is designed to be as opaque, secretive, and abstruse as possible.

The state spending plan is supposed to begin with a hearing on the governor’s budget by the House and Senate budget committees, and by law that hearing is supposed to be open to the public. But as SCPC has pointed out, lawmakers simply ignore the law. Instead, the budget begins in a dizzying array of committees and subcommittees, making it literally impossible for even experienced budget-watchers to have any firm idea of what’s happening.

About a third of the state budget consists of programs funded by the federal government – funds that cannot be spent without the General Assembly’s authorization (2-65-20 [5]). But the spending proposals are not analyzed, rarely if ever discussed or debated, and the policy prerogatives ceded by the state in order to draw down the funds are completely ignored.

Even earmarks are anonymous. A senator or House member can insert a spending item into the budget and not go on record for having done so. How common is the practice? It’s hard to say – which is precisely the problem.

Last year, The Nerve revealed that a House member had personally inserted a $200,000 earmark for a nonprofit group of which she was the executive director (her salary: $82,967). But that only happened because the story’s author had obtained an internal House document.

Earmarks make up only a small fraction of the state budget, but lawmakers can use them to do political favors or even – as apparently happened in the above-mentioned instance – support their own salaries. A bill in the Senate, S.1139, would change that practice in the Senate. Specifically, it would change the Senate rules by requiring members to make formal requests for budget earmarks, and those requests would be placed on the legislature’s earmark. No earmark could be considered in the budget before the formal request has been made.

The bill has eleven sponsors. If passed, it would make the budget process slightly – if only slightly – more transparent.

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