The biennial budget process that Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, has proposed should be central to any long-range financial plan for Alaska.
Under Phillips' plan, the state would budget for two years at a time, instead of one as it currently does.
The present budget process is wrought with frustration -- both on the part of elected officials and the public. While legislators start work on the budget as soon as they arrive in Juneau each year, most years they are still working on it in the final moments leading to adjournment. It's difficult for the public to understand what's happening or to comment on last-minute changes. And the process repeats itself each and every year.
It's a crazy way to do business.
Changing the budget cycle seems like a no-brainer. It would save time, money and aggravation on everyone's part.
Best of all, it would leave the second year of the legislative session for lawmakers to focus on other priorities.
As Phillips has noted, the proposal even has the potential to greatly reduce the time legislators meet during that second year. A shorter session not only would mean money in the bank for the state, but it also would mean legislators would spend more time in their home districts. Those two factors alone could do much to polish the tarnished perception the public frequently carries of its elected officials.
A two-year budget cycle also would make state operations more efficient. Agencies wouldn't have to battle for money each and every year; they could spend more time serving the public. While they may not like the amount of money they've been allocated, they would at least know what they had to work with and could set priorities accordingly.
The two-year budget cycle would come with some difficulties, but certainly not insurmountable ones. Oil prices can be fickle, making it difficult to accurately forecast revenues. That's why budgets need to be based on the low-end of those predictions. A moderate approach to budgeting likely would help avoid most pitfalls that naysayers will point out.
There's also the possibility of unforeseeable factors wreaking havoc on even the most well-prepared budget plans. Under Phillips' proposal, legislators could pass an appropriations bill to amend or supplement the budget at any time.
Phillips' proposal could go a long way in helping not only state officials, but all Alaskans, to take a longer range view of our collective finances. Quitting our current hand-to-mouth spending habit would be a good first step toward a long-range budget plan.
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