In state budget-setting — as in any team sport — it matters who keeps score. That’s why a bill heard in a Minnesota Senate committee this week bears watching. It would give the Legislature control of the “scoring” of proposed legislation’s future cost to the state’s general fund — calculations now performed by civil servants within the executive branch.
The proposed Legislative Budget Office has bipartisan backing, but the charge is being led by Republicans. Uncharacteristically, they are advocating for the creation of a new government activity that would largely duplicate an existing one — which would continue unabated — and cost taxpayers an estimated $850,000 a year. That suggests that something other than a desire to streamline government is afoot.
So does the fact that the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor found little amiss in 2012 when it reviewed the existing process for calculating the cost of legislation — and that the few improvements the auditor’s report recommended in the executive branch’s scoring process were promptly made.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the bill’s Senate sponsor, faulted the Dayton administration’s work as too slow. While Kiffmeyer could not point to instances of partisan bias in the projections, some Republicans suspect it’s there. Similar complaints have been made about every governor’s administration in the modern era, regardless of its partisan bent — and with nary an instance of documented mischief.
We’d call those complaints a sign of healthy checks-and-balances tension. The executive branch’s calculations restrain legislative temptation to lowball the cost of measures that might please voters in the next election but risk deficits in subsequent years.
The state Constitution requires a balanced state budget, and state law charges the governor with particular responsibility to keep it so. That obliges the executive branch to monitor the cost of budget bills. Duplicating that work with a new legislative budget office could give legislators second opinions more to their liking. But dueling cost projections would not make setting the state budget — or keeping it in the black — any easier.