After difficult months dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many state policymakers have turned their attention to vaccine distribution and new pandemic-related concerns but are hopeful that an end to the worst may be in sight. State budgets, however, continue to be affected by the economic shockwaves caused by the rapid spread of COVID-19. Still, as state legislators grapple with how best to respond to a changing fiscal environment, they can take certain steps to avoid making indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to public programs.
The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL’s) new Center for Results-Driven Governing recently released an issue brief to help legislators and their staff address these challenges. The brief highlights key questions that lawmakers can ask to help ensure that evidence and data are used in budget and policy decisions in upcoming sessions, and in the years ahead. The findings mirror many of those in a September 2020 issue brief from Results First that focused on how state budget offices and agencies nationwide are incorporating evidence to make strategic decisions about potential budget cuts.
NCSL’s publication suggests that legislators and staff members ask more targeted questions about how state agencies are collecting and employing data. They can then consider agency responses in their budget decisions and make more strategic investments. The brief recommends that lawmakers explore whether state budgets address the most critical problems and unmet needs, whether state funded programs are proven to work, and whether the money spent on programs is worth the cost. It also showcases tools, strategies, and other resources that legislators and their staffs can use to gauge responses from executive branch leaders.
Results First has developed tools and researched best practices that can help answer several of the questions outlined in the NCSL issue brief. Among the available resources and strategies are:
Lawmakers can then gradually increase these thresholds, holding agencies to higher standards in subsequent years while allowing some flexibility in how they meet the targets. For example, legislation might require agencies to prioritize evidence-based programs in 25% of overall funding in the first year and raise the requirement to 75% in the fifth year.
Beyond these tools and best practices, NCSL’s brief highlights additional strategies that legislators can use to make sure they ask the right questions and gather critical data to inform budget decisions during times of economic uncertainty. The publication highlights the need for legislators to reflect on lessons learned from recent public health and economic crises. By considering what information is necessary for decision-making over the course of the year, policymakers can begin to implement new tools and strategies to help ensure that this data is available when needed in years to come.
Sara Dube is a project director and Alex Sileo is a senior associate with the Results First initiative.