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Becoming a line item in a state budget

Becoming a line item in a state budget should only be attempted when your financial back is against the wall. It's really an issue of being unable to find funding any other way: there's really no other reason to engage in this process.

Not being able to find funding doesn't mean that you're not sure whether some of your proposals will be funded, or that finding funding is difficult. It means that you've actually exhausted every other possible avenue to get money for your organization. There are no apparent sources of funding - now or in the foreseeable future - and you're going to cease to exist unless you can become a line item in the state budget.

There are several reasons for our insistence that a state line item should be a last resort. While becoming a state line item carries with it the advantage of long-term, stable funding, both the politics involved and the results are almost always inherently unfair.

  • You are implicitly trying to convince a legislator or group of legislators that your program is worthy of statewide funding, while others are not. That casts doubt on the competence and effectiveness of other organizations, without any regard for their actual achievements.
  • You may be diluting the bargaining power of an already-underfunded field. If the field can't present a united front to advocate for money from local officials , because people see getting their own line item as a better deal, its ability to gain and maintain an adequate level of funding is severely compromised.
  • You could make it impossible for others to have the same privilege. When a certain critical mass of specific line items is reached - often not more than four or five - legislatures usually decide to allot no more, and even to eliminate those that already exist. They may also scrutinize the budget for that issue, and everyone may end up with less than they had before.
  • You are risking the anger of your colleagues, and may therefore find it harder to work with them in the future.
  • You are risking placing yourself in a position where the interests of the field - and therefore of the target population statewide - are in direct conflict with the financial interests of your organization.

The exceptions here are if your organization operates statewide, and/or is the only one of its kind in the state. Under those circumstances, a line item in the state budget might be appropriate.

That said, we'll examine how to become a line item in the state budget. States are, in most cases, not as different from one another as local governments may be. Let's take a look at a typical state budget process, one that's similar to that in a large number of states. (The process in your own state or commonwealth, of course , may differ.)

A typical state budget process 

Each state has a governor and a legislature. Most legislatures, like Congress, are bicameral (have two branches, a House of Representatives and a Senate). While some legislatures are full time, and meet, except for set recesses around holidays, year-round, others meet only a few weeks or months a year. Part-time legislators are often paid very little, and may continue to work at their regular jobs even during legislative sessions. It's important to find out how your particular state operates, since that will dictate how its budget process is similar to and different from the one described here.

First, the Governor, in conference with his Cabinet and other advisors, puts together a budget that highlights his priorities, and sends it to the legislature. The Governor 's budget goes first to the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, which (often with the participation or under the direction of the Speaker of the House) reworks it - sometimes so that it is all but unrecognizable. It then goes to the membership of the House, where it's debated and voted on. As part of the debate - which may go on for weeks - amendments (additions or changes) by individual members, often having to do with specific funding for their districts, are proposed, debated, and voted on. Eventually, a final budget, including the amendments that have been accepted, is approved on a vote by the full House.

The budget next goes through a similar process in the Senate.

We now have three budgets: the Governor's original budget (no longer relevant, but the Governor may lobby the legislature to include full funding for at least some of his priorities); the House budget; and the Senate budget. To work out the differences between their budgets, the House and Senate form a small, evenly-divided Conference Committee. The chairs of the Ways and Means Committees may co-chair it, and its members wield considerable power while it meets.

The Conference Committee, amid lobbying from other members of the legislature, eventually produces a mutually agreeable budget, which then goes to the House and Senate, where it may be debated and amended again. The final budget, approved by both houses, is sent back to the Governor.

The Governor can't add anything to the budget, but most governors have a line-item veto, meaning that they can reduce or eliminate funding for particular line items. So the Governor can approve the budget as it is; veto the whole thing (which virtually never happens); or, as is most often the case, use his line-item veto to eliminate or reduce funding for line items he doesn't like (or whose elimination will make his political enemies unhappy). The House and Senate then get the budget back, and may try to override at least some of the Governor's line-item vetoes with a 2/3 majority in each house. The budget that remains after the override process is what the state will operate on for the next fiscal year.

In most states, the aim is to have a budget in place by July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. In reality, if there is serious disagreement between the houses or between the governor and the legislature, there may be no budget until well into the fall.

A step-by-step guide to becoming a line item in the state budget 

Find a legislative champion. Virtually the only way to get into the state budget is to have a legislator put you there. Therefore, you need to find a legislator who's willing to go to bat for your organization. The most likely candidate is one who represents the district your organization operates in, because her constituents are directly affected. If your organization has broader appeal, a legislator specifically interested in your issue may also be a possibility.

In most states, your legislator's party affiliation or relationship with the leadership may be a major issue. Being in the minority might mean that she has no clout at all. Being in the bad graces of the leadership, regardless of her party affiliation, could mean that she'll never get anything she asks for. If she's in a key leadership position, on the other hand - chair of the Ways and Means Committee, for instance - she can probably get just about whatever she wants. Look for a sponsor who can deliver.

You have an even better chance if you can get both your representative and your senator involved. If your organization works in more than one legislative district, try to get all the legislators in all the districts on board. The larger the group, the better your chances.

You might work with the legislator directly, or you may be able to accomplish your purpose through an aide. In either case, you'll have to convince her either that your organization provides an irreplaceable and necessary service to her constituents, and/or that her ability to get you into the budget means votes for her.

There are a number of ways to approach this:

  •  Numbers help. If you can say something like, "We serve over 300 people a year in your district," that's a powerful motivator.
  • Need helps, too. Establish the need: "Over 9,000 people in the district show up (on the Census; in an independent study; according to the county Human Service Board; etc.) as needing this service."
  • Get her to visit your organization, talk to participants, walk the neighborhood with you, etc. to understand the issue better.
  • Bring individual participants or small groups to visit her - at the State House if the size of the state doesn't make that too difficult - so that she can get to know some real people who experience the issue and the results of your organization 's work firsthand.
  • Ask prominent members of your Board, supporters from the business community, other legislators you know, experts on the issue, etc. to talk to the legislator, and to urge her to meet your organization's need for funding.

Once you've convinced a legislator to sponsor your line item, you have to help her by putting pressure on other legislators to go along, if you can, through the remaining steps of the process. If you have connections to other legislators, you should use them. Mobilize community members or participants or both to call, write , telegraph, or e-mail legislators in support of your line item. Work with your legislative sponsor to come up with strategies to convince other legislators, and then take charge of carrying them out. You can't expect one legislator to do this in a vacuum.

Your champion asks someone in the leadership or on the House Ways and Means Committee to put your line item into the House budget. Unless she's on the Ways and Means Committee herself, or has a good deal of power in the legislature, things like this normally work on a quid pro quo basis: your legislator has to promise to return the favor, or has to have done a favor for those she's asking, so that they currently owe her one. You have to give her a good reason for putting herself in that position: she has to believe strongly in the cause, or has to believe that her support for your organization will help her in the district over the long term.

You may notice we've bypassed the Governor's budget here. It's generally not politically possible for the Governor to include a line item for a local program - he'd probably be roundly criticized in the media as soon as news people found out. It doesn't hurt to try to get to know someone in the Governor's office, however, in order to garner support or head off a line-item veto farther down the road.

If the line item isn't in the Ways and Means version of the House budget, your champion has to try to get it in by amending the budget on the House floor. Once again, this means putting herself in debt to the leadership or calling in more favors: she has to believe that her actions will help large numbers of her constituents , and/or that they'll help her own reelection chances and continued popularity in the district.

Once the House budget is done, whether or not your line item made it in, you have to play the game of garnering support all over again in the Senate. Making sure you have your state senator on your side from the beginning will make things easier. If he's been working the senate to get your line item into the budget, you may have an easy time of it. If not, you and your legislative sponsor may have to scramble. She's likely to have some contacts in the Senate, and you may have Board members, community supporters, or others who have contacts as well.

By and large, a small line item (and, in a large state with an enormous budget in the billions of dollars, "small" can mean several hundred thousand or even a few million dollars) that comes through in the House budget would be left in by the Senate as a courtesy to a colleague, unless it's part of a larger item that gets cut. If there's a budget crisis, however, or if your sponsor has powerful enemies in the Senate, there's always the chance that your line item will be eliminated there. It makes much more sense to do everything you can to make sure it's included in the Senate version in the first place than to have to try to get it in later.

The ideal here is to end up with your line item appearing in both the House and Senate budgets with the same amount of money allotted to it in each. If that happens, the Conference Committee will leave it alone, and your effort is done unless the Governor vetoes it.

If your line item doesn't make it into the House budget, the Senate is obviously crucial. Getting it into the Senate budget means that it will at least be a matter of discussion in the Conference Committee. If it doesn't get into the Senate budget, your chances of success almost disappear.

Almost, but not quite. If your line item isn't included in either budget, you still have one (slim) chance: the Conference Committee. It's possible to convince members of the Conference Committee to put your line item in the budget...but there 's almost no reason they would if it hasn't gotten in to this point. It's your last chance, however, so you better take it. Otherwise, you're out of the race.

The budget, with your line item in it, now has to be signed by the Governor to become official. (Here's where having a friend or contact in the Governor's office can come in handy.) If he leaves your line item alone, you're home free; if he vetoes it or reduces its appropriation, you have only one chance left.

Override. If you and your sponsors can muster a 2/3 vote in both houses, you 're finally in the clear. Once again, it's a matter of bringing to bear any pressure you can muster in any way you (ethically) can.

Although a state budget, and each line item in it, is only good for one year, line items like this, once they're in the budget, tend to remain undisturbed until the economy goes bad or there's an effort to reform the budget (the two often come together). Then, every line item might be scrutinized, and yours may be in jeopardy. By then, you may no longer need it...but if you do, you may have a problem. The legislator who sponsored it may be gone, and unless you've maintained contact with her successor(s), you may be left with no defenders. In that case, you'd better find another source of funding.

It's also your job to be ethical about your situation. If and when you get to the point where your organization no longer needs its own special line item in the state budget - either because you've gotten public funding on your own or because you've found other funding adequate to support your work - have yourself taken out. Your colleagues will thank you, your legislators will be impressed with your integrity , and you'll feel better about the organization's ability to be self-supporting. Even if you get to that point, however, don't be a fair weather political friend. Maintain your state and local contacts: you owe them something, they're important in any case, and you never know when you may need them again.