By Dermot Cole
Before the Alaska Legislature begins the 2014 session, it should crack open its budget process to the public. It’s not hard to get this started. All it takes is for the leaders of the finance committees to break with a senseless tradition and allow members of the public access to public information.
The four legislators who have the ability to make an immediate change are the co-chairmen of the finance committees in the House and Senate: Reps. Bill Stoltze and Alan Austerman and Sens. Pete Kelly and Kevin Meyer.
Let’s start with the basics.
There are two state budgets. The operating budget, about $9.2 billion this year, pays for the operation of state agencies. There are detailed hearings on the operating budget to examine how the state spends that part of its money.
The capital budget pays for hundreds of millions in construction projects, grants and other special services that often begin with direct requests to legislators. The hearings on the capital budget, which is about $2.5 billion this year, are not of the same caliber. If you want a new soccer field in Sitka, a fire truck in Fairbanks or an ambulance in Anchorage, it will be funded through the capital budget, but the request may be processed largely in private.
The governor introduces his version of the capital budget in December, knowing that it will be revised and expanded by the Legislature, with both the Senate and the House adding projects that lawmakers want for their districts, a key part of getting re-elected. Lawmakers in the majority party have the most sway in deciding what gets funded, while members of the minority have limited control. The pattern has been the same no matter which party controls the Legislature.
The guiding principle in Juneau should be that any request for public money, from a constituent, local government or from a lawmaker, should be open to the public. It’s the public’s money, after all.
But that’s not how it works. Instead, the entire exercise is as open as a poker game before any cards are played. The system, as now set up, encourages lawmakers to treat requests for capital budget funding as confidential.
If a legislator has enough pull behind the scenes, the requests may be granted in the final days of the session. As the hours wind down to adjournment, the final budget appears, festooned with projects that have had no public hearings, with no attempt to set statewide priorities.
The secrecy encourages lawmakers to not challenge each other about whether an appropriation is appropriate, lest the favor be returned. This is another long-standing Alaska legislative tradition that should be scrapped.
Legislators who defend the current system because it has been handed down from their predecessors should drop that line. An improved system would mean earlier public access to requests for public funds and real public hearings on the capital budget, not the lightning-round versions that take place in the final hours before adjournment.
Years ago the challenge of processing and duplicating hundreds of documents provided an excuse of sorts for the lack of disclosure in crafting the state capital budget. With changes in technology, however, the logistics of pushing paper are no longer a justification for obstructing public access.
The Legislature has a computer system to keep track of requests for public money, allowing all lawmakers access to the data immediately. But the bizarre rules on access to that information promote secrecy.
Every legislator should have access to a complete list of what is being requested in every part of the state. And because the information involves requests for public money, the same level of access should be accorded to the public. There is no need for the cloak-and-dagger tactic of packing the capital budget with surprises.
This step alone would have prevented the tennis court debacle in Anchorage in 2013. Even legislators couldn’t agree what the money was for because the capital budget went through the Legislature, as former Gov. Steve Cowper used to say, “like a dose of salts.”
A computer system, known as the Capital Project Submission and Information System, or CAPSIS, was created seven years ago to keep track of requests for funding. Under current practice, the information on this system eventually becomes public, but not until weeks or months after the budget has been enacted and after any opportunity for the public to have a say has passed. At that point there is no point in debating the merits of an appropriation.
Legislators have the authority to create CAPSIS accounts, on which they make requests for public funding. But the information on their accounts is limited to their districts or their part of the state. A Fairbanks legislator, for instance, does not have access to the requests under review by Anchorage legislators, a legislative finance official said.
That our legislators have allowed this no-see-um policy to continue for years is astounding. It runs counter to the ideals of representative government, and it should be overturned immediately.
The information provided as backup on the CAPSIS system is “utilized by the co-chair’s office to ascertain the merit of each project and determine how it can fit into the overall appropriation level,” a legislative budget guide says. But restricting access to the co-chairmen of each finance committee is a flawed practice.
All legislators and the public should be able to use the information to “ascertain the merit of each project” and see how it fits into the state budget.
Within their own CAPSIS accounts, legislators also have the ability to create subaccounts for whoever wants to ask for public money in their districts. Local governments have subaccounts, along with lobbyists who get accounts to promote the interests of their clients. This allows lobbyists to have access to legislators through a system that shuts out those who are not on the inside.
I sent the following note to the four finance leaders Monday afternoon:
I hope you can help me with a column I am writing on the CAPSIS system for the Alaska Dispatch.
It seems to me the obvious thing to do is to create a “view only” approach that allows all Alaskans the ability to see public requests for public dollars. The assertion that tradition justifies secrecy is not convincing.
Please let me know if you are willing to make that improvement in the system. In addition, please let me know if you are willing to allow lawmakers from one area of the state to see CAPSIS requests from other areas.
I was informed today that legislators do not have access to those requests, a policy that strikes me as a bad one.
So far, I’ve heard nothing back from them. If I do, I’ll let you know.
Dermot Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This commentary was originally published on alaskadispatch.com, Alaska’s source for online news.
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