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July 3, 2015

The Flawed Budget Process Has Gotten Even Worse

On July 2nd we finally saw the product of more than a month of closed door meetings about the state budget bill – during which time the budget committee didn’t have a single open meeting.  After a process that excluded the public but included special interest groups, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the last motion offered and approved by the budget committee Thursday evening was a 67-item package that includes a broad array of special interest measures – many of which are non-fiscal policy changes that have no relationship to the budget bill.

This process is a blow to legislative transparency, as is the substance of the wrap-up motion, which makes sweeping changes to the Open Records Law and will sharply curtail access to legislative records.  And in a further blow to the budget process and transparency, Chairman Nygren refused last night to allow a separate vote on the open records changes. The process of creating huge motions with lots of special interest provisions is all the more problematic if committee members are denied the usual prerogative of having separate votes on different pieces of the motion.

As I wrote in a Wisconsin Budget Project blog post a couple of days ago, legislators should be embarrassed by this year’s budget process, and not because it has extended into the new fiscal year.  What should embarrass the policymakers involved is that they spent more than a month developing a budget behind closed doors, before loading it up with special interest measures that are unrelated to the budget. To compound the problems with that process, the 67-item motion wasn’t unveiled until the eve of the holiday weekend, and Assembly leaders plan to take the bill to the Assembly floor next week.

In addition to the sweeping changes to the open records law, some other examples of the many non-fiscal measures in the bill include:

  • expanding the types of financial products and services a payday lending company may provide;
  • eliminating the authority of the Dept. of Workforce Development to set a living wage (i.e., the minimum wage);
  • changing the definition of lead-bearing paint;
  • raising the bar for getting initial recognition to represent a collective bargaining unit; and
  • permitting employees to state in writing that they voluntarily choose not to have at least one day of rest each week.

The huge wrap-up motion does contain some positive measures – some of which soften the rough edges of previous actions by the committee.  For example, the motion requires all teachers to have at least a high school degree, and it makes small improvements in the changes relating to the Family Care and IRIS long-term care programs.  Those changes serve to illustrate why it’s useful to let some time elapse between the proposal of new policy changes and when they are taken to the floor in either house of the legislature.

Yesterday evening the committee approved the wrap-up motion on a party-line vote (12-4), and approved the amended bill by the same margin. I suspect that the Legislative Reference Bureau will be working over the holiday weekend to complete the drafting of the bill, which Assembly leaders plan to bring to the Assembly floor on Wednesday and Thursday (July 8 & 9).

Because of a growing backlash to the attack on the Open Records Law, I suspect there will be some changes proposed by GOP leaders before the Assembly votes on the bill, or at least before the Senate takes it up.  However, all the attention devoted to an issue like that one will make it even more difficult to generate adequate public review and input regarding the many other last-minute amendments to the bill.

As I wrote in a WI Budget Project blog post yesterday, the final motion unveiled Thursday “includes a host of non-fiscal policy measures that deserve to have public hearings and to get thorough public debate.  They have no business being added just before the holiday weekend to a bill that Assembly leaders plan to rush to the floor next week.”

Jon Peacock