Dorso Column: ND Legislature May Not Be Able To Write State Budget In Ink


Looking back at my time in the legislature I now realize why North Dakota’s Governors, the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the budget analysts were so enamored with the budgets they produced. They had put a lot of sweat equity into this very large document. When the legislature starts re-prioritizing the spending they are actually questioning the assumptions and work of these professionals. The professionals wonder how these part time legislators could possibly know enough about the number of dollars in the document to make changes.

In reality most of what legislators do is accept assumptions that the OMB analysts put in front of them. Where the rub comes is when legislators use different assumptions or have different policy priorities then the folks who work full time in the capitol.

As I said last week with all of the uncertainty we face at the federal budget level some of the assumptions the Governor and OMB made this time may not apply when Congress gets done. I hope both the legislators and the Governor can face the reality that the Budget as presented is no more than a proposal. It may by necessity need to be amended.

Almost all of the agency budgets are prepared in advance and presented as bills to the legislature by the executive branch. I discuss this topic in my book When Governance Worked: It’s Time to Chart a New Course. The appropriations committees study the details of the bill and then propose amendments to the executive budget which may or may not be accepted by the full legislature. I found that most of the time amendments made by the appropriators carried the day on the floor of the House. That is why the citizens of North Dakota should be so interested in who sits on the appropriations committees. I found as a general rule that the longer legislators sat on the Appropriations Committee the more likely they would go along with the proposals OMB put in front of them. It isn’t always true but the newer people on those committees were most likely to ask the right questions. That is why I liked to shuffle the people around on that committee when I was Majority Leader.

A case in point is what assumptions has OMB made concerning the new state health insurance pool. They have to provide some kind of estimate of the cost. My contention is that they will vastly underestimate the cost. Other states have all ready found out the awful truth as explained this week in SAB. I think that as Obamacare moves toward full implementation many employers will drop their company plans. Many people will be on their own, on a state sponsored plan or Medicaid. Here in Florida we are all ready seeing the service industry cut their employees to 32 hrs. so as not to have to provide health coverage. Employers have all ready seen the cost of coverage for full time employees escalate to the point that they can’t afford it.

The result becomes less full time jobs and more folks working two jobs but without health care. This is what I always referred to as “the law of unintended consequences”. Government does one thing and employers react to it in the least costly manner that complies with the new rules. In this case there is a double shoe that may drop. Not only will we see more people on Medicaid because of Obamacare the, feds are all ready easing the eligibility requirements to get on Medicaid.

Keep an eye on the Appropriations Committee when they have the hearings on these issues. AARP will be there in full force driving an agenda contrary to being fiscally conservative. Hospitals and clinics will be lobbying for the amendments that maximize their ability to get reimbursed. The counties will also be on hand. Counties have a very direct interest in who is on Medicaid. I could go on and on about who the special interests will be on this issue because again we are talking about hundreds of millions.

By the way if you really think North Dakota should repeal the state income tax you best make a big push now before the Feds suck up the surplus. Obamacare isn’t going to be cheap at any level of government.

John Dorso represented District 46 in the North Dakota state legislature from 1985 to 1999 and as served as House Majority Leader from 1994 to 1999. He is also the author of When Governance Worked: It’s Time to Chart a New Course.

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