Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting by Dall W. Forsythe (Book Review #17 of 2015)


Memos to the Governor, Second Edition, Updated: Memos to the Governor: An Introduction to State Budgeting
Dall W. Forsythe was New York State's Budget Director and has served in a similar capacity for other government, private sector, and non-profit entities. This book is used in Public Administration 
courses (apparently at places like Harvard and other Ivy League schools likely to produce governors) to introduce students to state budgeting in a simple format. The back cover sums it up well:
"Dall W. Forsythe, who served as budget director under Governor Cuomo, outlines the budgeting process through a series of memos from a budget director to a newly elected governor--a format that helps readers with little or no background to understand complicated financial issues. He covers all of the steps of budget preparation, from strategy to execution, explaining technical vocabulary, and discussing key topics including baseline budgeting, revenue forecasting, and gap-closing options. Forsythe brings fresh insights into such issues as the importance of a multiyear strategic budget plan, the impact of the business cycle on state budgets, the tactical problems of getting budgets adopted by, legislatures, and, of course, the relationship between governor and budget officer. Memos to the Governor is a painless, practical introduction to budget preparation for students of and practitioners in public administration and public-sector financial management."

The format of the book addresses the reader as a governor who is getting a crash course on budgeting. I cringe thinking that there may be some governor or major policy adviser out there whose only introduction to budgeting is this book. *shudder* But better this book than nothing, I suppose. I work in a state budget office and work in the revenue forecasting side while also working with a particular agency's expenditure forecast. I most enjoyed the chapters in the book dealing with putting together the economic and revenue forecasts. This book ought to be given to everyone in my office when they first start working as it gives a great picture of how all the pieces fit together (and I don't live in a state mentioned in the book).

"Governors need people around them who are prepared to speak truth to power, and by position and training your budget officer is expected to play that role" (p. 7). 

Forsythe occasionally injects his own opinion into the descriptions:

"I believe that state budget officers will serve their governors better by...broadening their roles into full-fledge chief financial officers...financial manager and budget strategist and tactition"(p. 9).

There is acknowledgement of the ultimate obeisance to the bond market, ie: the credit rating agencies (22).

I shrug a little when he writes
"Your revenue estimators will keep in touch with their counterparts in other states and with other economists with regional perspectives," because in my experience that does not happen much (p. 23). I do enjoy his admonishment that "it is dangerous for you or your top staff to try to tinker with individual revenue estimates" as it "creates a dangerous dynamic in the relationship between you and your budget officer (or office)" (p. 25). In reality, governors are politicians and their officers are often political appointees expected to support the Governor's policies and agenda. Incentives matter, in other words.

Most of the book is a step-by-step primer in how budgets are put together, negotiated, sold to the public, signed into law, and adjusted when economic realities emerge. Forsythe has included many historic examples (mostly from the 1980s and 90s) from several states, not just New York. I gained a greater knowledge and understanding of my budget analyst colleague's work due to this book.

I recommend this book to anyone serving in state government, as it's important for everyone to understand how the budget process works. 4 stars out of 5.

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