Thursday, December 18, 2008

Zero-day budget creation

So I had an idea this morning for how California could pass a balanced budget in about one day of work. Now, I'm sure this is not a new idea, or restricted to just California, but I think it could work pretty well. Of course, like all other good ideas for helping a government function effectively, it's doomed to be ignored... but I'll post it anyway.

See, the problem in California is that the current process never works. You need a 2/3 majority to raise taxes/fees here (which is great), which means it's near-impossible to draft a partisan budget and ram it though the other party. Since politicians rarely negotiate with the other party, this means we have no budget for a long time, until enough time passes that enough people can get on-board with the "work around the law" plan. At no point does the system really produce a viable budget, or produce the desirable negotiation or compromise; moreover, it typically results in shortfalls, delays, and months of wasted time/effort.

So, here's my thought/proposal:

On the last day before a budget is due, if no balanced budget has been passed, the legislature will do a "zero-day budget". To do this, take all the major categories for the budget, and put them in a list in random order. Set whatever minimums are required by law for each category, and compute the total (which we'll call the "running total"). You also need the budget total, derived from the income projection for the next year, which we'll call the "limit". In addition, you need an "increment", which can be a fixed fraction of the total budget for all categories (eg: 1/1000), possibly rounded to a round number. Finally, you want some fast voting mechanism (eg: electronic, 30 sec timeout), which we'll call a "quick vote".

Now, starting with the first category in the list, and at its minimum budget value:

1. Increase the budget value by the increment, and hold a quick vote. While 2/3 of the legislature approves, increase the running total and repeat step 1.
2. When you fail a 2/3 vote, move to the next category and go to step 1.
3. If the running total plus one increment exceeds the limit, you are done. The totals allocated for every category are the budget for the next year, to be further subdivided by the administration for each category. This includes categories you didn't reach in the first round (if any).
4. If you reach the end of the list of categories, and you're under the limit, you can do one additional pass through the categories using the same mechanism, starting with the totals from the previous round. If the second round is also goes to completion, you have a budget (and a surplus for the year).

- The zero-day budget has no provision for increasing taxes/fees as part of the budget process, as designed. These should be approved independent of the budget itself by the normal 2/3 vote plus executive approval.
- The process doesn't have to occur on the last day before the budget is due, if the state wants to have a budget sooner.

That's my thought, anyway.

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