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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Borrowed ideas can reduce politics in Concord


As Gov. John Lynch puts together the most important speech of his time in office, he should plan on borrowing ideas from President Barack Obama and from Iowa to reduce the amount of politics in Concord.

In three weeks, the governor will present his budget address, a compilation of his ideas on cutting spending, other proposals and the budget that holds them together. In the face of the biggest budget crisis in the recent history of the state, he's going to want to cobble together ideas from as many people as he can. We have to cut every dollar of spending possible, so I thought I would save him the price of a phone call and put a few ideas forward right here.

New Hampshire has a budget based on estimating the amount of revenue we think our current taxes are likely to raise. If that estimate is higher, spending can be higher. If the estimate is lower, spending is automatically restrained.

Historically, revenue estimates have always been a political football. Those who wish to spend are more likely to believe higher estimates. Those of us who want government to spend less become naturally pessimistic about the same estimates.

There is some sniping and griping about the revenue estimates every year, but the last budget was typical. One budget writer is said to have urged the tax committee to look to the skies for their estimates because the spending needs were great. Consequently, the budget debate in the House focused on whether the estimates were unrealistic.

Later in the process, when the House and Senate were millions of dollars apart in reconciling their two budget bills, a conference committee solved the problem overnight by adjusting revenue estimates by the amount of the impasse.

There is a better way, and Iowa has found it. Those sensible Midwesterners put together a Revenue Estimating Panel outside the political process. Each quarter, a group of professionals puts together a new, public estimate of consensus estimates for each tax source. They don't write the budget; they don't consider policy changes; they aren't working for one party or another. They just issue regularly revised statements explaining how much money will be available at current rates.

They won't always be right, but the consensus estimate assures the public that we're budgeting based on what's likely to happen, and we've attempted to control for our own bias toward higher or lower spending. It should help the debate focus on policy choices and not whether someone is trying to cook the books.

The second change Gov. Lynch should propose comes from our new national leader. You probably noticed that yesterday we swore in a new President (if not, flip your newspaper to the front page and read the lead story before continuing). President Obama and I have a difference of opinion on a few things, but I've mentioned before that he has some great ideas about transparency in government.

One of his proposals is called "sunlight before signing." Essentially, he won't sign any non-emergency bill without it having been posted on the White House Web site for at least five days. In essence, we shouldn't pass anything before people have a chance to see what we're doing and weigh in. Great idea.

In New Hampshire, we do a good job of this in most areas. Bills are all posted online, and for the most part changes are posted before the Legislature votes. Oddly, the one area where we don't do this is the budget.

The governor's budget proposal is a wonderful document. It includes a detailed and relatively easy to understand 30-page executive summary. The summary has charts, summaries by program and the very important "surplus statement" that explains how the budget is balanced. It is an essential tool to understanding the 1,000-page, oddly laid out, budget itself.

However, once the governor's done on Feb. 12, we won't see summaries again. In fact, in too many years even a revised surplus statement is not available before the vote. All too often, the final budget is hashed out in the wee hours, and members of each legislative chamber have to vote with little time to digest information. The public sees nothing.

Sunlight before signing or voting would require summaries as part of the budget bill itself, all posted online, and five days for legislators to read a complicated document and hear from the public before the vote. More information and less politics can make a better budget. Government is not shy about borrowing money; let's borrow a couple ideas instead.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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