Cooking up a budget


A week or so back, I received an e-newsletter from long-time Democrat Karen Keiser, from her position of President Pro-tem of the Washington State Senate. The ostensible subject was the opening of the Lockdown Edition of the State Legislature on January 11.

Most of it, though, was devoted to encouraging recipients to take an active role in shaping this year’s biennial budget, which will take effect on July 1 of this year. “The new remote options make it easier than ever before to testify on legislation,” Keiser wrote: “You no longer have to travel to Olympia and queue up in long lines outside committee hearings!”

It’s absolutely true. There are quirks and blind alleys in the process of checking out Committee agendas and finding the specific legislation that interests you, but thanks to COVID and enforced isolation, practical real-time involvement in the budgeting process is within the grasp of anyone with an internet connection and abundant patience.

Sadly for me, I encountered Keiser’s rallying cry having just emerged from a deep dive into the budget for the last biennium, 2019-2020. And my experience convinces me that no matter how much access and influence citizens have over what goes into a committee’s deliberations, what emerges in the final document is the reverse of reassuring about the legislative process.

Here is a passage selected more at less at random from the pages of the current budget, a small section of the portion devoted to disbursing funds for supplementary education projects:

“$500,000, or as much thereof as may be necessary, is appropriated for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, from the workforce education investment account provided solely for purchase of equipment for a regional training facility in Bothell to offer a simulated good manufacturing practice experience in partnership with a community college. The regional training facility must be located on the campus of a manufacturer of protein-based therapeutics. The state board for community and technical colleges must use a written agreement to ensure the equipment is used in a way that provides adequate public benefit.”

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

If you think this is unrepresentative, I estimate that about two-thirds of the 564 pages of the published budget are written in language equally opaque—opaque to anyone, that is, who didn’t have a hand in crafting its intricate tissue of evasion.

This is not a straightforward explanation of how a half-million dollars are authorized to be spent. It is more like the kind of word-puzzle consisting of a series of factual statements, which the solver must parse to answer a particular question. Here the question might be: Who needed some cash to buy unspecified stuff to set up an unspecified off-campus community college program at an unspecified lab campus devoted to something unspecified in the bio-tech line to help illuminate a . . .

Does anybody on earth know what a “simulated good manufacturing practice experience” might be, or what equipment might have to be purchased to facilitate it, except the person who inflated this word-balloon and got it wadded it into law?

Was this person even serious about wanting the money spent? Note that it doesn’t have to be: it’s only made available in case [Someone] wants to spend it. A wise and experienced analyst of legislative bumph might well conclude that [Someone] had a [Constituent] who needed to be at least convinced that [Someone] cared about the [Issue], whatever it was.

I am not kidding about this. If we’re going to be transparent about the testimony and factual findings that go into a budgetary decision, but the actual process the committee goes through to write the legislation is closed to the public and forever off-the-record, transparency is an illusion.

The screeching irony here is that the same technology which allows us to keep track of what goes into the committee’s pot can also keep track of every single step of the cooking that leads to the finished dish. Fingerprints can be identified; serial numbers can’t be filed off. We can know who suggested what and what someone else got to get them to agree.

The Washington State Budget that will take effect July 1 will still be the mattress stuffed with secrets budgets have always been. It could be the last such travesty of due process. Is there anyone who’d like to see that happen?

Roger Downey
Roger Downey
Born in Canada moved to Peru's altiplano at the age of six; came to the U.S. at 10 to discover that you don't use your feet to dribble the ball. Learned from the git-go that "America" is an idea, not a place.


  1. I suspect the real wordsmiths of this kind of language are the lawyers in the bill-writing shop. Much of the evasive language is to skirt the laws against lending the state’s credit to private companies. But you’re right: the effect is to keep the public guessing.


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