Conference committees often favor budget bills with higher spending
The path for a bill to become law in Michigan is long and winding. And the complexity of the process turns many citizens away from getting involved.
There are resources available to help, like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's MichiganVotes.org, a website that translates every bill and every vote in plain English and can be sorted a number of ways.
But the process still is difficult to navigate. For example, when the state House and Senate fail to agree on every aspect of a bill it is sent to a conference committee. This happens on virtually every budget bill.
Three House members and three Senate members are appointed to the committee. Their job is to iron out the differences between the House version and the Senate version of a specific bill. In recent years, conference committees have often favored the versions of budget bills that spend more money rather than those that would have spent less.
“Even legislators with fiscal conservative inclinations may weaken after being worked over by spending interests for weeks on end,” said Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “We saw this when state universities and local governments successfully got Gov. Snyder’s proposed best-practices ‘incentive’ funding watered down, to cite one classic example.”
To help sort through the process, Michigan Capitol Confidential is tracking an appropriations bill that started in the House. House Bill 4223, which appropriates funding for the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) budget, is a good example. The objective is to compare the bill in its current form to the final version (which has yet to be determined) that eventually will get passed and sent to the governor.
“There has been a justifiable argument made by politicians in Lansing that schools and local municipalities need to do reforms,” said Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, chair of the House Appropriation Subcommittee on the LARA budget. “Dashboards have been created and funding has been cut over the past 10 years. But at the same time the Lansing bureaucracy has slowly increased their funding. Their dashboards consist of service and quality standards. What is their response to fixing their dashboards? Increase FTE's (full-time equivalent positions) and funding. If we know that money isn't the answer, why are we allowing for any increase to state budgets?”
Last year’s LARA budget was $645,901,800. This year, Gov. Rick Snyder recommended less overall spending in the budget, proposing $573,906,300.
Gov. Snyder’s nearly $72 million spending decrease recommendation largely was due to reduced federal grants. However, the governor also recommended that the department make staffing changes, with some new positions being added but even more eliminated.
These suggested staffing changes are designed to more accurately reflect actual, as opposed to theoretical, staffing levels. Overall, Gov. Snyder recommended a reduction of 74.8 FTE positions from the LARA budget.
“Regulatory Compliance and Consumer Assistance asked for an additional 10 employees. But there was not any increase in the budget dollars,” Rep. Forlini said, explaining the difference between a budget that reflects real staffing levels and one that doesn't. “This means that there was over $1 million in taxpayer dollars (based on $103,000 per FTE cost) just sitting in their budget.”
In its current form, House Bill 4223 is the House subcommittee’s version of the LARA budget. It cuts $11.97 million from the governor’s recommendation, lowering the overall budget to $561,930,700. These additional savings include the elimination of 16.2 full time positions that the governor had recommended be added.
“This budget rejects over $13.6 million in economic adjustments,” Forlini said. “These adjustments, no matter how they are paid, result in a bureaucracy creep in Lansing. Locals do not have the opportunity to add blind money based on their union contracts. The state shouldn't either.”
House Bill 4223 has a long trek ahead of it in the legislature. It is currently in the House Appropriations Committee. It could undergo some changes there, before being reported to the House floor, where more changes could also occur.
After the House passes the bill, it will be sent to the Senate, where it will move through the committee process and almost surely be changed. More than likely, it will eventually end up in a conference committee. At the end of the process, Michigan Capitol Confidential will compare the conference committee’s final version of House Bill 4223 to the bill as it stands today.
LARA is organized into four principal functions: 1) Licensing and Regulation; 2) Employment Security and Workplace Safety: 3) the Michigan Administrative Hearing System; and 4) the Office of Regulatory Reinvention.