In spite of spirited debates over religious freedom, right-to-work legislation and more, the Indiana General Assembly has only one constitutional responsibility: to approve a biennial budget. How ironic is it, then, that the state’s worst score on a measure of public integrity is for its budget process?
The Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation assesses state government accountability and transparency, compiling a report card with marks for campaign financing, public access to information, lobbying disclosure and more. Indiana’s overall grade was a D-, better then Michigan’s failing grade, but lower than the D+ marks earned by Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio.
Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Politics at IPFW, said approval of the state’s biennial budget follows a legislative process that begins with public debate but eventually is left to a handful of legislators in closed-door meetings.
"The first half of the session is very open. It’s very easy to track legislation," Downs said. "When it gets to the second half, it’s harder. The moment you get to conference committee – forget about it. You can’t follow what happens."
House Bill 1001 is the vehicle for the budget in odd-numbered years. And it always ends up in conference committee, where key House and Senate fiscal leaders exercise total control. A compromise spending plan emerges with little time for rank-and-file lawmakers – let alone the public – to consider how it treats various agencies.
To be fair, the top-ranked state was Alaska, and it earned only a C from the Center for Public Integrity; almost a dozen states had failing grades. Because the nonpartisan center is a Pulitzer Prize-winning organization targeting corruption and abuse of power, its priorities are different from others.
John Mikesell, a public finance expert at IU-Bloomington’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs, rightly noted the center "has an agenda in their rankings."
"They didn’t test the impact of the features that they would like to see in a budget process on actual fiscal performance outcomes," he wrote in an email. "I do like transparency in government finance but I like fiscal performance even more."
The spending plan is a statement of Indiana’s priorities. The balance of its allocations for schools and prisons speaks to what is valued and the direction lawmakers have chosen to go. The process begs transparency.
Other states operate with much greater transparency. Idaho, for example, earned an A for its budgeting. The public is free to watch the state’s joint budget committee meetings online and even provide input during the hearings. Residents can view the full budget bill online throughout the approval process.
Indiana’s process likely fares worse under the General Assembly’s current supermajority status, which lessens the need for moderation and compromise within the private workings of the conference committee. Ideally those meetings would be public, but the complexity of a nearly $16 billion annual spending plan requires lawmakers skilled in crafting a budget. That doesn’t mean Hoosiers can’t be allowed greater oversight of the process that essentially determines where Indiana is headed.
Until they ask hard questions about priorities, we aren’t likely to see it happen.