Report: Legislative Financial Estimates Are Often Skewed ; Bias Can Undermine or Promote Bills, Policy Analysis Says

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West Virginia lawmakers are passing bills with inaccurate and biased estimates of how much the proposals will cost, and little is being done about it, according to a report released Tuesday.

Legislators often attach price tags, called "fiscal notes," to their bills. But agency officials who prepare the fiscal notes sometimes inflate expected costs to kill legislation they don't like - or downplay costs if they want bills to pass, according to the report.

"As revenues continue to fall, it is increasingly important that legislators understand how proposed legislation will affect the budget," said Sean O'Leary, who prepared the report for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "The state's current process for producing fiscal notes, however has led to biased, inaccurate and inconsistent information that legislators largely distrust."

The report cites numerous examples of fiscal notes that have included basic math errors, state agency bias and conflicting information. Some notes also had missing explanations and failed to disclose how legislation would affect cities and counties.

Earlier this year, for instance, lawmakers passed a bill that requires county sheriff's departments to issue bulletproof vests to deputies. A table at the bottom of the fiscal note listed "$0" financial impact to the state. However, a written summary on the same document declared that counties would have to pay $143,750 for the protective vests.

"Local costs or savings are often ignored by fiscal notes," O'Leary said.

State agencies also "game" fiscal notes to undermine bills, according to the report.

Several years ago, the Department of Education estimated it would cost $1.5 billion - nearly as much as the state spends on K-12 education each year - to provide daily physical education classes in schools statewide. Department officials inflated the analysis by including the costs of building new gymnasiums and athletic facilities, according to the report.

During the past legislative session, the Tax and Revenue Department prepared 22 fiscal notes, the most of any state agency, followed by the Consolidated Public Retirement Board with 10, and the Secretary of State's Office with six. …