JACK SPENCER: Passing a state budget can get complicated

Maybe it’s spring in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere but in Lansing it’s budget season. Michigan’s budget process has changed under Gov. Rick Snyder. He uses omnibus budget bills and makes sure he will be able to claim the budget gets completed by June.

This approach combines the budgets for all of the State’s departments into two big spending bills. One bill is for spending from Michigan’s General Fund and the other is for spending from the School Aid Fund.

Both include various forms of federal funding. Other sources, such as the money from Indian casinos and tobacco settlement dollars, play their roles in the budgets as well.

The use of omnibus bills makes it easier to get most of the budget passed because it dilutes accountability. Voting for just two large budget bills prevents lawmakers from having to vote up or down on specific issues involving each department. This gives them plausible deniability.

They can say: “I didn’t agree with everything that was in the budget, but no one else did either. I wasn’t going to vote against the entire budget just because there were two or three aspects of it that I didn’t like.”

Ironically, Snyder’s way of tackling budgets has precisely the opposite effect regarding really big issues of contention. It places them center stage and puts a spotlight on them.

Unlike previous Michigan governors; Snyder has made it a priority to be able to say that the budget has been completed early in the summer. This is probably because when he ran for Governor in 2010 he promised to operate the government in a businesslike fashion and criticized his predecessors for letting budgetary squabbling go right up to the Oct. 1 deadline.

Use of omnibus budget bills is a major factor that helps Snyder resolve the state’s annual budget early; but it’s not the only factor. The other key factor is that he takes contentious issues out of the budget if the battle over them threatens to delay the process. Snyder did this with the Detroit-Winsor bridge issue in 2011, which was the first budget he signed. In 2013, he did it with the Medicaid Expansion issue.

There are advantages and disadvantages in this technique. One obvious disadvantage — from the lawmakers’ point of view — is that separating these issues from the budget draws the news media’s attention to them like a magnet. Under the old system, these kinds of issues were, to some extent, camouflaged by the fact that the rest of the budget was still on the table and still had to be covered by the news media until September. Now, under Snyder, they become stand-alone issues that can’t escape the limelight.

Theoretically, Snyder doesn’t need the Democrats to get his budgets passed. Both the House and Senate are controlled by his fellow Republicans. But when there are issues for which he can’t count on full Republican support, things become complicated.

This year, the budget includes the appropriations for Medicaid expansion. Yes, these are federal dollars, but it’s likely that many Republicans who opposed Medicaid expansion consider it politically inconsistent to turn around and support the appropriations for it. Then there is the $350 million for the so-called Detroit “bailout;” which is probably a difficult measure to get a number of Republicans to support as well.

Note: none of this directly impacts the School Aid omnibus budget bill, which Snyder can most likely get passed with only the Republicans voting “yes.” The Democrats can all vote “no” on that budget bill to stay consistent with their campaign claims that “education” isn’t getting enough funding.

Not so with the General Fund budget bill for which Snyder may currently only be able to count on support from less than half of the Republicans if the Medicaid expansion appropriations and the Detroit “bailout” spending are included in the legislation.

The most direct way for Snyder to solve the situation would be to keep the Medicaid expansion appropriation and the “bailout” money for Detroit in the budget bill and see if he can persuade the Democrats (most of whom support both) to vote for the bill.

Faced with this type of situation, former Gov. John Engler might have gone so far as to dare Democrats to vote against the bill. Snyder, however, doesn’t seem to operate that way. But it would be safe to say that there has been a lot of negotiating between the administration and the Democrats taking place over the legislature’s spring break.

In the end, both the Detroit “bailout” dollars and the Medicaid expansion appropriations might pass as part of the budget, or one or both might be pulled out and dealt with separately. But in an election-year, waiting until August or September to address either of these issues could get dicey.

A key date will be April 22, which is the deadline for candidates to file for the August primary elections. Politicians always claim that they only vote their consciences, but common sense tells us something different. Once everyone knows who will and who won’t be facing a primary opponent, the behind-the-scenes vote-counting for the budget will begin in earnest.