Diana Urban (Courtesy of Diana Urban)

Opinion: On Fixing Connecticut’s Budget

in Budget/Columns

Connecticut citizens wonder why the state can’t get its budget act together. Why is Connecticut’s infrastructure crumbling when improvements are supposed to be funded by the gas tax? Why can’t we get our heads — or budgets — around healthcare that works for everybody. Our public pensions are grossly underfunded. We’re backsliding when it comes to children and family welfare. All we ever hear is that our young entrepreneurs are leaving the state, and the cost of living continues to rise. All of this is significantly impacted by the way Connecticut budgets.

In my 18 years in the General Assembly I supported a basic approach to budgeting that involves tying budgets to documented need and measurable performance. In other words, ask each agency for each program, both new and old: How much did you do? How well did you do it? Is anyone better off?

It was an approach known as Results Based Accountability, you might have heard of it as RBA, and I can tell you quite simply why it didn’t succeed. It takes a lot of work, and it requires making tough political decisions on spending that invariably rub some special interest the wrong way.

It’s not just the legislative branch that’s failing here. It’s also too much work for the executive and judicial branches to put in place a system that will in the long run result in accountability, efficiency and transparency. RBA has the potential to significantly eliminate waste and redundancy because it means figuring out whether programs are actually doing what they claim to be doing.

One quick example: As chair of a short lived Accountability Subcommittee of Appropriations, my team was poring over data on reading programs. One in particular caught our attention — one that was being funded at annual rate of $20 million. In looking at the “is anyone better off?” question, it was crystal clear that the program simply wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be doing. So we re-purposed that money to a proven program. And if you don’t think we got political pushback on that decision, think again.

So how do we deal with this lack of effort on performance-informed budgeting? I’ll start with my “legislators should be full time” rant.

When the Connecticut General Assembly was first called in 1636, it goes without saying that the issues legislators were confronting were nowhere near as complex as they are today. So it wasn’t the work that shaped our schedule, it was the growing season. We met in the winter and adjourned when it was time to plant.

Up until the late 1800s that made perfect sense. But today’s legislators need to be conversant in a broad range of issues: health care, the environment, transportation, infrastructure, education, abuse and neglect of children and juvenile justice — just to start the list.

So why doesn’t Connecticut go full-time? We’re afraid to. We’re afraid to, because it would logically require a pay raise. When I was first elected in 2000, the base pay was $28,000. It was $28,000 in 2018 when I left. We’re not even vested in our pension or health care system until we’ve served 15 years. Granted, our health benefits while in office are great, but my view is all citizens in Connecticut should have the same package.

The idea of a citizen’s legislature is supposed to make us more grounded, more connected. I would suggest that instead it makes us all more exhausted as we try to balance our other job with late night sessions as well as day-long public hearings .While a legislator, I served as senior economic adviser to a D.C.-based consulting firm. Let me tell you, budgeting is hard enough. It’s really tough when it’s heaped on top of all your other work.

Another way to improve budgeting: Involve committee chairs in the budgeting for the agencies they know. Each committee chair in the General Assembly has oversight over a particular agency. We have to know that agency, its mission and its performance, inside out. As chair the Committee on Children, our oversight was the Department of Children and Families. I knew their programs, their workers, their commissioners, their complaints their successes, their ups and downs.

We knew so much, because with the department’s full cooperation we had instituted a “Children’s Report Card,” that tracked the department’s performance against its spending — and we spend a lot in Connecticut — nearly $6 billion. But when it came budget time, unless I was actually serving on the Appropriations Committee, I didn’t have a significant voice in fashioning the budget. Sure, I could make suggestions to members of Appropriations, but as the chair of the committee overseeing DCF, I was not in the budget-decision mix. That should change.

Committee chairs know their agencies better than anyone. Committee chairs should put together the preliminary budget for the agencies they oversee and give a well-researched draft budget proposal to the Appropriations Committee. It would be the chair’s responsibility to verify that their agencies are focused on the right outcomes, and that the right programs are in place to efficiently achieve those outcomes.

Why isn’t this happening? It would require real political courage on the part of legislators to go after failing programs, and it’s too much work.