The first event of this semester’s MPP speaker series offered students and faculty the opportunity to hear from State Budget Director John Roberts. Last Thursday evening, Roberts, a Michigan State alum, shared information about his current role as well as insights he has gained from his years of policy work. After serving as Special Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington, D.C., he returned to his home state of Michigan, working first as Policy Director in the House and then as Deputy Chief of Staff to Governor Snyder.
Now, as State Budget Director, Roberts oversees Michigan’s entire budget. His office is responsible for implementing the final budget and for making recommendations to the governor and the legislature during the budgetary process.
Federal Fund Information for States rates Michigan’s budgetary process as #1 in the nation. According to FFIS, a good budgetary process “gives people confidence that their state is run in an orderly, efficient, and open manner.” Roberts shared his pride in Michigan’s high ranking, which it earned after significant efforts at streamlining and reform.
Throughout his talk, Roberts reminded the audience of the importance of affordability when making policy decisions and designing programs. He advised students to always consider future economic consequences when creating and analyzing policy.
A consistent theme running throughout Roberts’s presentation was short-term versus long-term thinking. He urged students to evaluate decisions for their long-term impact. As a strong supporter of the state’s balanced budget requirement, which Michigan shares with most other states, Roberts emphasized the importance of savings and rainy-day funds for fiscal health. He also noted how this requirement can force policy makers to make tough but necessary decisions. The topic of teacher pensions and educational expenses served as a good illustration of these types of challenges.
Roberts also discussed the timing of policy decisions and the effect of rules such as term limits on policy design and implementation. He noted how term limits can result in short-term thinking among legislators, who are also given limited time to develop expertise on key issues facing the state.
In addition, Roberts discussed the many factors that go into developing the budget. He noted how financial considerations and constraints, like revenue estimates and baseline spending needs, as well as more political decisions, like advocacy efforts and legislative priorities, affect how spending decisions are made.
His discussion of these issues and the relationships among the state and its communities and schools illustrated how complex his role, and the role of the State Budget Office’s staff, really is.
At the conclusion of his talk, Roberts took questions from both students and faculty. Our MPP students asked insightful questions regarding a number of important issues. Given the diversity of policy interests and viewpoints, their inquiries included questions on topics like jobs, environmental issues, and education. Roberts noted that the challenges of Michigan’s demographic changes will play an important role in all of these areas. He encouraged students to consider how governments can better adapt to shrinking populations while also making long-term investments in the future.
Roberts’s discussion helped illustrate how important financial considerations are in policy. His diverse experiences in government allowed him to share valuable insights into the political and policy processes. He showed how these lessons are applicable to students who are interested in government as well as the private and non-profit sectors.
Events like Director Roberts’s visit give MPP students the opportunity to learn from professionals and other knowledgeable speakers. This presentation was an excellent start to this semester’s series.