Commentary: Beer for my horses, whiskey for my men




We’re entering the world of bureaucratese — the foreign language you didn’t take in school.

A decrement is bureaucratese for a cut in a budgeting unit’s requested budget.

I used the imprecise term “budgeting unit” because budget requests have become very imprecise and Legislative appropriations are even more illogical and imprecise.

It takes someone who really knows their way around the budget and the budgeting process, as well as a very good knowledge of the State’s organizational structure, to know where money comes from and where it goes.

The prime directive is that every State expenditure must have a supporting appropriation; the insider lingo is that an expenditure must “point to” an appropriation.

This has a constitutional basis, as the Constitution requires that all authorization for an expenditure must come from the Legislature; the executive branch has no independent authority to expend or retain State funds.

The constitutional mandate is articulated in statute in the Executive Budget Act (AS 37.07 et seq.), a law with origins in the Hammond/Sheffield era, but with amendments from time to time.

Back before we got really rich and really sloppy Alaska had a very positivist tradition in our laws governing the ministerial functions of the State; the money, the people, and the stuff. In my time there I saw a dramatic erosion in ministerial control and oversight.

The Executive Budget Act requires that each program be described in detail and the personnel and resources required must also be set out in detail. You must make a budget request for each part of your program.

That notion is mainly honored in the breach. I once asked for several hundred thousand dollars in a capital request for “negotiations expenses” with no detail at all because I didn’t want the unions to know what I planned to spend money on.

A legislator called me and asked what I was going to do with all that money.

I replied: “Buy beer for my horses and whiskey for my men.”

I got the money, or most of it anyway.

My point here is that there isn’t a lot of control and almost no auditing, so adherence to laws and policy really depends on the integrity and power of the fund manager, usually a division director. Some division directors have more power and influence than others, so the real authority may reside in a commissioner’s office or the Governor’s Office.

The imprecision of both the budget requests and the appropriating language makes it very difficult for the Legislature to make a cut in any particular place under the best of circumstances.

Everybody who has worked in the government knows stories of legislators targeting particular people or particular programs, but the reality is that it is almost impossible for the Legislature to get rid of Director Joe Blow because he pissed off some powerful constituent using the vaunted “power of the purse.”

If they cut the Division of Widget-making’s budget by an amount equal to Director Blow’s salary and benefits, he’ll just lay off the single-mommy clerks or close the Widget-making office in the district of the legislator who was behind the cut.

So, when you only tell the Department of Health and So-called Services to cut its budget by 5 percent and don’t tell it precisely where and how to cut the budget, you’ve enacted an unallocated decrement and the DHSS can take that cut anywhere it chooses to.

The State then has an almost untrammeled right to lay off an employee for lack of funds.

That said, we found it almost impossible to sustain these economic layoffs in arbitration or the courts because the imprecision of appropriations almost always caused the specific layoff to be an exercise of management discretion rather than a Legislative act denying funds.

When you have the Legislature or a body of the Legislature at odds with the Executive Branch you may rest assured that the Executive Branch will take any unallocated decrement in the place most likely to hurt the legislator(s) behind the cut or the place most likely to make a lead story.

There have been exactly zero meaningful cuts in the Operating Budget during the Vince Beltrami…excuse me…Bill Walker Administration.

Yet, we’ve had Trooper posts closed, ferry schedules changed, and most recently the threat to throw veterans and senior citizens out into the street.

[Read: Pioneergate? Governor retracts Pioneer Home closure, doesn’t apologize]

If you are going to cut the State budget through the Legislature’s power of the purse you must tell the Executive Branch exactly how and where to cut it or they will cut the budget in the place that does you the most harm or them the most good, often that’s the same place.

It is more difficult than it should be because of sloppy budgeting practices, but you have to tell them that you are abolishing the Widget-making Division and cutting the funds for all labor and materials associated with Widget-making.

If you don’t, they’ll cut the Transportation Department’s budget in such a way as you’ll never see a State snowplow in your district again.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. He only writes for Must Read Alaska when he’s thoroughly bored. Chance loves to ignite controversy by using the phrase “hermaphrodite Administration” to describe a governor who is both a Republican and a Democrat.