Be honest, have you ever looked at your state budget? Probably not. And if you do, the complicated figures and numbers probably intimidated you. But there is hope. One of the co-authors of a recent report for the Volcker Alliance, titled Beyond the Basics: Best Practices in State Budget Transparency, Richard Greene, Special Projects Advisor for the Volcker Alliance and Principal of Barrett and Greene Inc., advocates for transparency and understanding around a state’s budget.
Greene sat down with Emily Jarvis on GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight to discuss the importance of transparency and what states need to be including when publicizing their budget.
“Budget transparency is not a magic bullet. It doesn’t solve anything by itself. All it does is give people a greater opportunity to solve things,” Greene said.
Greene noted that understanding the budget is essential because it impacts every citizen. “The biggest bill, the one that impacts the state the most, is the budget. It would be really great if it was more transparent.” Citizens should be able to properly understand their state’s budget so as to adequately play a role in passing legislation they deem fit.
Citizens can play a big role in the decision-making process behind their state’s policies. They can lobby to maintain the status quo or they can advocate for changes in the way the state prioritizes funding (in a different manner or for a different program/project). “The public invests in their government and to invest in government without knowing what exactly you’re investing in feels shortsighted,” Greene explained.
Transparency around states’ budgets is necessary for all 50 states, even if it is challenging. “The difficulties in the budgeting process emanate from a variety of sources,” Greene said. Although most budgets are already online, states could make their online budgets more easily accessible in search engines through the use of strong and clear key words.
Additionally, the information shared needs to be clearer. “We want them to be more transparent about information that will actually help a user know what the current economic status is,” Greene stated. He provided six things he hopes to see in future state budgets:
- Clearer presentation of one-time revenues and how they affect future budgets. “Multiyear forecasts are rarely accurate due to the difficulty behind unforeseen changes in conditions, but there are estimates that help reveal things.”
- Multiyear projections for both revenues and expenditures (important because people are more inclined to project out revenues and lesser expenditures).
- More figures on deferred infrastructure maintenance (something that, Greene shared, doesn’t usually exist unless a state does condition assessments of its roads and bridges).
- More information about tax expenditures (currently being done through the Governmental Accounting Standards Board).
- More current, historical and trend information for debt (total debt figures are already included, but should be put into a better context).
- More disclosure about the volatility of tax revenues.
Last, but not least, Greene hopes to see more involvement from the media. He wishes to see “a renaissance of state fiscal coverage.” This would create a symbiotic relationship in which the media covers an important piece of legislation and states, in turn, give the media the information needed to accurately cover the topic in a way that is understandable for all.
Transparency movements don’t always come out as clear as one would hope, but efforts in publicizing state budgets remain important nonetheless.