Do we need this every year?

Do we need this every year?
Let's face it.

South Dakota is a small state. Heck, we're so small that several metropolitan areas nationwide have a greater population than we do.

That's not to say we're not without problems. But it begs the question � especially after reviewing what our state Legislature accomplished this last session � do we really need to endure this every year?

Even in the best of times � periods of strong economic activity, when public revenues increase regularly and spending decisions are easy � we'll admit that the state budget process is not easy.

Caught in a swirl of dueling interests, needs and politics, the annual budget battle in South Dakota has become an unending fight for marginal advantage among political and policy interests.

It's not difficult for observers of the South Dakota House or Senate to discover, while sitting in the Capitol galleries, Bismarck's observation that the legislative process is similar to making sausages � what happens in the process is a lot uglier than what emerges at the end.

We have our annual spats over education funding, which usually results in little reform (the excuse this year: lawmakers wanted to wait one more year for yet another study to be completed).

Some predictable things occurred. We decided to fund the state fair � again. But a lot of us were blindsided when suddenly our state lawmakers became mired in The Great Abortion Debate.

I don't know about you, but when I voted for our District 17 legislative candidates, I wasn't expecting them to fritter away their time on an issue that should be addressed by Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.

It might be time for South Dakota to consider shifting from an annual to a biennial budgeting and legislative process. There's certainly merit to meeting every two years rather than annually.

It would allow (force is such a harsh term) the establishment of a process in which agencies would consider long-term spending needs as they draft annual budgets.

Some form of biennial budgeting could offer a better way to develop and plan both programs and budgets. Having to face the budget battle only every other year frees up agency staffs, members of the legislative and executive branches and others to focus on performance.

Program management could also improve without the constant need to write and rewrite budgets.

Currently, 23 states offer some form of biennial budgeting, and seven of those states operate with biennial legislative sessions and biennial budgets.

One's first reaction is that these states must be drastically different from South Dakota. Well, some of them aren't, really.

Included in this group is North Dakota, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Kentucky and Arkansas.

In some states, only a limited number of agencies, most of them smaller, operate on such a system.

In a few states, the entire operational budget is for a two-year cycle, often aligned with legislatures that meet either biennially or meet in a long-session, short session annual sequence.

It's time to think about weaning ourselves from the annual legislative process. We can work our way toward biennial budgeting and sessions gradually, in baby steps.

Eventually cutting the number of legislative sessions we must host in Pierre by one-half will, naturally, save the state money.

And even when we have a robust state budget, very little in state government encourages long-term planning and strategic thinking, and the annual budget cycle just exacerbates the problem.

Biennial budgeting is not a panacea. It won't deal with the realities of recessions or falling revenues or eliminate the need for year-to-year decisions.

But in a climate where "long-term" is now seen as three months, anything that would force planning and strategic thinking, months, anything that would force planning and discussion out a year or two is certainly beneficial.

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