A Budget Issue on Which the President and Wisconsin Republicans Can Agree

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 7:07 PM by

Earmark Transparency Bill Passes Easily in WI Senate, Moves to Assembly

In an unusual display of broad, bipartisan agreement, the Wisconsin Senate voted 30-3 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would require biennial budget bills to be accompanied by reports listing all the earmarks in the bill.  SB 114, which now moves on to the Assembly, also prohibits budget conference committees from adding earmarks.  At the national level, President Obama has pushed for similar legislation. 

Earmark transparency is the kind of “good government” issue that often draws rhetorical support from lawmakers and citizens across the political spectrum, but which is likely to run up against a wall of unspoken resistance that protects the status quo.  That’s not to suggest that there aren’t some legitimate questions and concerns about whether this seemingly straightforward requirement will always be practical and effective, but there’s growing sentiment for allowing more sunlight to shine on the budget process.    

The wide-ranging support was illustrated in Congress in May 2010 when an “Earmark Transparency Act” was introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).  Earlier that year, in his State of the Union address, President Obama challenged Congress to “publish all earmark requests on a single Web site before there’s a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent.”

SB 114 would prohibit Wisconsin legislators from voting on passage of a biennial budget until the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) has prepared a report listing all earmarks, including their cost, beneficiaries, location and the requesting legislator.  A budget couldn’t be passed by the Joint Finance Committee until the LFB has distributed an “earmark transparency report” to all lawmakers and posted it on the Legislature’s website. Similarly, neither house of the Legislature could pass the biennial budget until such a report has been prepared for the bill and amendments.

I was pleased to see that the definition of earmarks goes beyond spending measures and includes new or amended tax deductions, credits, exclusions and exemptions, if they apply to a specific beneficiary or beneficiaries.  Too frequently, tax expenditures of that sort are viewed differently than other expenditures and don’t get the same scrutiny. 

I’m not convinced that the new transparency effort is always going to work.  For example, I suspect that at times the Fiscal Bureau won’t be able to ferret out the intended beneficiaries of an earmark.  And I suspect that the true identity of legislators requesting earmarks won’t always be apparent, when Finance Committee members and legislative leaders carry amendments for colleagues with less clout or who have some reason to want to conceal their responsibility for an earmark. 

Notwithstanding those reservations, I think enactment of of SB 114 would increase transparency during the budget process, which would be a positive development. Perhaps if the legislature takes this step toward allowing more sunshine into the corridors of the Capitol, we could get to a point where legislators would take responsibility for the various portions of the large omnibus motions that are often unveiled in the Finance Committee as that committee wraps up its work on the budget.  

SB 114 is coauthored by Senator Zipperer (R. Pewaukee) and Rep. Kramer (R. Waukesha).  Senator Zipperer issued a press release yesterday regarding the bill’s passage.

Jon Peacock

Categories: Blog, federal issues, Joint Finance Committee, tax expenditures | Comments Off on A Budget Issue on Which the President and Wisconsin Republicans Can Agree

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