Edward Fitzpatrick: More scrutiny of budget process is needed

The House Finance Committee on Tuesday served up a taxing-and-spending smorgasbord, focusing attention on a part of the state budget process that some find unappetizing.

While budget production is often likened to sausage making, perhaps the Rhode Island version is more of an Olneyville New York System hot wiener. In any case, it should be of interest to all Rhode Islanders since it involves spending some $9 billion in public money.

House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry, R-North Smithfield, said the biggest problem is that the House Finance Committee uncorks an amended version of the governor’s proposed budget — and votes on it immediately. So there’s no time for public scrutiny and testimony, no time to catch errors or to make changes before the vote.

In some cases, budget articles reflect deals struck hours or minutes earlier by the House, Senate and governor. “Copies of budget articles coming off the copy machine are literally warm to the touch,” Newberry said.

Now, to be sure, House Finance Committee members receive briefings on the House budget proposal and they’ve spent long hours hearing testimony about the governor’s budget plan, which was presented in February. So it’s not like they have no idea what’s in the 1.5-inch-thick budget document, he said.

“But every year there are things that are new in form or detail, there are under-the-radar changes, and the idea that we vote on this in one giant package without taking the time for public testimony — or even to read it — doesn’t make any sense,” Newberry said. “It’s not a recipe for good government.”

So what’s a better recipe? “I’d like to see some reasonable length of time — a week or 10 days — between the presentation of the [amended] budget bill and when the Finance Committee actually votes on it,” Newberry said.

Rachel Flum, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute, said, “That is exactly our biggest frustration: new provisions show up in the House budget that have not gotten a public hearing.” One year, some 6,500 RIte Care recipients lost eligibility in a surprising House budget proposal, she said.

Flum recognizes legislators spend long hours reviewing the governor’s budget proposal, so it might not be possible to review the entire budget after the House unveils its plan. But she said it might make sense to hold hearings on only the new budget items before the full House vote.