Monday, April 25, 2005

Details of budget
cryptic to most

Legislators grapple with an
$8.9 billion plan’s intricacies

Dollar by dollar, the nine senators and 18 House members of the state budget conference committee are working out how to spend about $8.9 billion.

And unlike past years, the budget conference committee is open to the public, and the 1,105-page budget worksheet is even posted on the Internet.

Figuring out what is going on in Room 329 of the state Capitol, however, is not for the timid.

"The first time, it was like listening to a foreign language, and you needed an interpreter," says Adriana Ramelli, the Sex Abuse Treatment Center's executive director.

Marsha Wienert, state tourism liaison, who has worked with complicated budgets in the tourist industry, agrees.

"It is kind of hard to follow," she admits.

The conference worksheets bristle with phrases such as this from Page 554: "Add (116.5) positions and funds for other current expenses to reflect change of program ID from Women, Infants and Children (WIC) branch (HTH165/GI) to Women, Infants and Children branch (HTH540/GI)."

"If you came to Hawaii on March 31 and sat in on the budget, it would be difficult to understand," admits Sen. Brian Taniguchi, Ways and Means chairman.

"You have to know what the governor put in the budget, what happened the year before and how the House and Senate address these changes," Taniguchi (D, Moiliili-Manoa) said.

There are few people in the state with that depth of knowledge of the state's arcane budget details, Taniguchi said.

"Rod (Tanonaka, Ways and Means chief clerk) is one of the five best persons in the state to understand the budget, and right now he is probably tops," Taniguchi said.

Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai), who has sat on five conference committees, admits that when it comes to the budget, the House and Senate clerks are some of the most powerful people at the Legislature.

"When we make a first pass at the budget, that first pass is from details prepared by the staff. ... I would say that the WAM and House finance staff has more power than most senators or representatives, but they have been working with the numbers all year long," Slom said.

To make some of the budget easier to digest, the Lingle administration's version of the budget is broken down in charts and graphs for each department on the state's Internet site. But that only shows the base budget and not legislative changes.

Taniguchi says that 80 percent of the administration's budget is a base that cannot be changed, such as needed expenses for salaries, interest payments on bonds and expenses such as electricity and water.

"We are dealing with the adds and the minuses, and that is all in those 1,000 pages," he says.

Slom says that by the time the conference committee has started to negotiate the final budget, there is no more time for debate.

"It is not the kind of high drama as with other bills. Most of the time, there are just a series of compromises because you have to have a budget and they want to get out on time.

"The philosophical discussions aren't going to happen in conference," Slom says.

Over the years, Taniguchi says, the budget negotiations between his committee and the House Finance Committee, led by Rep. Dwight Takamine (D, Hawi-Hilo), have mellowed.

"Before, it used to be much more of a battle. You would see which side could come up with the best information on a program to trump the other side. Now it is more collaborative.

"We prepare our separate budgets and we go into conference. It is much more a matching of the notes on each side," Taniguchi says.

If there is to be sharp disagreement, it is with the majority Democrats and Republican Lingle.

Already the Legislature has signaled that it would rewrite some of Lingle's budget add-ons and substitute money for its own programs.

For instance, the House Budget Committee report notes that while Lingle increased the state budget by $200 million in the next two years, "The governor's proposed budget is $82 million short of the Department of Education needs."

For citizens hoping to have an impact on the budget or get more money for a community program, Ramelli says the best way to lobby is early.

"I would say that you have to start working early with the departments and find out if they can help you with money from their basic budget. If not, then you need to get a grant-in-aid request.

"Being successful means knowing all the legislative steps. You can't come down here by yourself and expect to understand it all," Ramelli says.

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