How should Rhode Island plan for its fiscal future?

Proposals submitted by state Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton) and state Rep. Marvin L. Abney (D-Dist. 73, Newport, Middletown) seek to create a special legislative commission to study the possibility of Rhode Island adopting a biennial budget process, which would entail state government creating budget plans for two-year periods rather than on an annual basis.

Nineteen other states utilize biennial budgeting, including Connecticut. In a release announcing the proposals, DiPalma said the “difficult exercise” of developing each year’s budget makes it “imperative that we explore other possibilities in how we budget our state government.” Abney said it is “important that we study the best practices of other states.”

The proposed commission would include four members each from the state House and Senate, along with Rhode Island’s budget and administration directors and the heads of the Rhode Island Foundation and the Partnership for Rhode Island. It would report its findings to the General Assembly no later than Feb. 1, 2019.

Would the biennial process benefit Rhode Island? It’s difficult to say.

A 2011 report from the National Conference of State Legislators, titled “State Experiences with Annual and Biennial Budgeting,” found “little evidence that either annual or biennial state budgets hold clear advantages over the other.” The report suggests the biennial process will reduce some costs for executive agencies, but will also reduce the familiarity of legislators with the budget. It also suggests an annual process yields more accurate financial forecasts, which may lessen the need for supplemental appropriations or other changes.

Rhode Island’s budget has grown significantly in recent years, and officials continually struggle to realize savings and find new sources of revenue. With state leaders facing significant projected shortfalls in the years ahead, that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Biennial budgeting is at least worth exploring, even though its possible benefits, at first glimpse, appear minimal. All potential avenues to improve efficiency should be considered.

Our state likely needs to take an even broader view. Can our current governmental structure be improved? Are there ways to increase the sharing of services among municipalities without infringing on local character and control? Can we learn more from the experiences of other states?

Perhaps, some day soon, we can collectively summon the political will to address those questions. As we move toward Election Day, we encourage all Rhode Islanders to consider the big picture and become part of the civic discourse.

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