The nation has just suffered through fiscal-cliff negotiations that left nobody, on either side of the aisle, happy with the results or the process.
Now it's time for Massachusetts to start its annual budget-making theatrics. And, while the results are likely to cause similar disappointments, we at least have some new players and new rules that might make the proceedings more satisfactory.
First, Governor Deval Patrick has a new budget chief shepherding the process. Glen Shor was named a few weeks ago to succeed Jay Gonzalez, who resigned after three and a half years as secretary of Administration and Finance (A&F).
Second, the governor's budget proposal will be accompanied by two-year strategic plans from all eight cabinet secretaries.
And third, Patrick's budget will be presented in an entirely new, program-based form, in addition to the traditional line-item format.
The changes might not grab much attention when Patrick delivers his fiscal year 2014 proposal on January 23 — people are likely to be more interested in the tough medicine in the budget itself.
But in the long run, they are potentially more important. "Program budgeting, and releasing all of this information (in the strategic plans), is very positive in helping people understand the state budget, and the state government," says Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
The replacement of Gonzalez with Shor is least remarkable, but that in itself suggests why it is interesting.
Under Patrick, the top budget position has shifted, from a key political post (going to party operatives such as Thomas Trimarco, Andrew Natsios, and Kevin Sullivan) to one held by expert policy-and-budget mavens. Leslie Kirwan had worked throughout state government under Republican administrations, including under Charlie Baker at A&F. Gonzalez worked under Kirwan, and earned his promotion through brains and hard work.
Shor, similarly, has quietly proven himself — first by heading the health-care budget in A&F, and then as executive director of the Health Insurance Connector Authority.
The new strategic plans were formalized by a Patrick executive order last February. A&F spokesperson Alex Zaroulis boasts that it's a major leap forward in government transparency, and outside State House–watchers agree.
The documents (to be posted online the same day as the governor's budget proposal) will not only lay out the program-by-program missions and activities for all to see, they will also set two-year, measurable performance goals.
This type of performance management is common in the private sector — and even, increasingly, in municipal government — but state government has been stubbornly resistant to it.
The timing of these first strategic plans may be auspicious. Their goals come due in 2015 — when Patrick and his cabinet will be gone, replaced by the next administration. So, they have less incentive to low-ball the numbers now, to make sure they look good later. Likewise, the new people in charge can be brutally honest in assessing whether programs run by their predecessors met their benchmarks.
The program budget might be the most welcome change of all. Anyone who's tried to wade through a state budget bill knows how difficult it can be to parse what's being spent for a particular area of interest — homeless programs, or arts funding, for instance.