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June 12, 2013

Budget’s Non-fiscal Policy Explosion Cataloged by Fiscal Bureau

Finance Committee Approves 35 of Governor’s Non-fiscal Proposals and Adds 59 More

A document released Tuesday by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) provides a comprehensive list of non-fiscal policy measures included in the biennial budget bill. Legislators frequently condemn the practice of putting non-fiscal policy into this bill because the budget process generally provides much less opportunity for careful review and debate than the normal legislative process. Nevertheless, they sometimes succumb to the desire to use the budget as an easy way to pass things, including policy measures that probably couldn’t survive more thorough public scrutiny and more robust debate.The volume of inappropriate policy items seems to have exploded in this budget. The Governor proposed 58 items that the LFB categorized as non-fiscal policy, and the Joint Finance Committee removed only 23 of those. The LFB memo shows that the committee subsequently added 59 more, bringing the total now in the bill to 94.

I won’t try to pick out and summarize the most troublesome of those additions, but my recent blog post describing the ones added in the middle of the night last week provides a good sample of the sorts of inappropriate special interest measures that were added. Those examples include authorizing bail bond agents, establishing a much shorter period for a payday loan to be overdue before it is considered to be in default, making retroactive changes in product liability laws to restrict litigation, removing a restriction on when cable companies can disconnect service, and requiring UW to sever ties with the Center for Investigative Journalism.An example from the many non-fiscal policy measures that were added a little earlier during the Finance Committee’s meetings is the measure banning local ordinances intended to promote healthier food choices. We joined a number of health care groups on a press release today explaining the sorts of unintended consequences that could result from that amendment. The questions and concerns raised in that release provide a great illustration of why the budget process shouldn’t become a vehicle for fast tracking policy changes that have no relationship to the biennial budget.Republican legislative leaders have indicated that they expect very few changes to be made to the Finance Committee’s version of the budget bill when it comes to the floor of the Assembly and Senate. Perhaps that reflects that a fair amount of horse trading has already occurred behind closed doors, and GOP leaders probably want to avoid any risk that the package might unravel by allowing their members to vote for amendments on the floor.

If the rest of the budget process is as partisan and inflexible as is often the case, the final budget will be an alarming grab bag of inappropriate policy measures. It will vividly illustrate why legislators shouldn’t allow non-fiscal policy measures to be quietly slipped into the budget bill with minimal public scrutiny and legislative debate.

Jon Peacock