House Municipal and County Government Committee
In favor of HB 243, HB 454, and HB 415
Dear Honorable Members:
As President of the School District Governance Association of NH I am testifying in strong support for these three bills, all concerning transparency in budgets. The SDGA is mostly made up of past and present elected school board and school budget committee members. Many in our membership have experienced ongoing problems obtaining timely and useful budget information from their School Administrative Units. It is completely unreasonable that elected officials have to fight to receive budgets in live spreadsheet form, but fight they must in many cases.
While I was a member of the Timberlane Regional School Board, I myself had to go to the NH Supreme court to obtain my school district’s budget in full line item detail in spreadsheet form. The SAU spent $50,000 in legal fees to prevent me or anyone else from having a useful electronic version of the $68 million dollar budget. I prevailed in the end (Green v. SAU 55 et al) and now anyone in the state can obtain public information in electronic form if it is so available. It sounds incredible that an SAU would see fit to spend its taxpayers’ money this way, but this is an indication of how loath some public bodies are to allow their elected overseers robust financial information.
While few elected officials have resorted to the courts, typically they must be satisfied with much less information than they would desire. I know of one situation two years ago where a school budget committee chairman asked the SAU Business Administrator for the budget in spreadsheet form. The next meeting no spreadsheet was produced so the board voted to request a spreadsheet. The next meeting no spreadsheet was produced so they voted to demand a spreadsheet. Four weeks went by before they were given a spreadsheet of the budget and by then the committee had just a few meetings left so this deliberate delay by administration worked against the elected officials’ prudent and proper oversight of the budget, and the public interest.
HB 243 adds this simple sentence to exiting legislation:
All municipal, district, and school administrative unit budgets shall use a full line item detail in industry-standard electronic spreadsheet format, which shall include all the budget lines used to comprise the complete budget.
This simple sentence could not be more needed. You will hear that full line item detail will reveal nonpublic information. In no case is nonpublic information put into public budgets. If in a very rare situation in which a budget happens to reveal that one employee is taking a family plan insurance vs. some other kind, in what way is this not public information?
HB 454 adds this change to existing legislation:
at such [time] times and in such detail as the budget committee shall fix
The sad truth is that this change to the law is also needed so budget committees have the statutory power to request whatever information they see fit. It is hard to convey how adversarial some public bodies are to having elected budget committees examine their business.
HB 415 adds this change existing legislation:
…but no fewer than 30 days prior to the public hearing for its budget. The governing body shall publish the draft budget and revised versions, after making any updates to the budget, within 5 days. Budgets shall be published in full line item detail, and made available in CSV and PDF formats for easy viewing and use by common spreadsheet programs.
This change requires administrators to submit statements of estimated expenditures and revenues for the ensuing fiscal year to their respective governing bodies no fewer than 30 days before public hearing. This, sadly, is need to ensure that administrations do not “run out the clock” on their budget committees, which is a very common problem. It also specifies that draft budgets are to be provided in a useful spreadsheet form in full line item detail.
These changes to the law are needed to help budget committees do the job the public expects them to do. Please help us help ourselves. There are very few penalties for public bodies who fail to follow municipal budget law. At the very least elected officials need the transparency tools to properly supervise and oversee the sizable tax dollars entrusted to public bodies.
School District Governance Association of NH