Are There Clouds on Wisconsin’s Horizon?

Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:48 PM by

This week is National Sunshine Week, which has nothing to do with the fact that spring has at long last arrived, and everything to do with reminding us of the importance of open, transparent government.

We could do with a little more sunshine in Wisconsin. In the past month or so, there have been two big pushes to change the way state policies are made. These efforts would decrease public participation and concentrate power in the executive branch. Proponents of these changes argue that they give the Governor the necessary flexibility to cut spending. But these changes come at the cost of reducing transparency in government and allowing important policy decisions to be made behind closed doors.

One of these changes is a provision in the budget adjustment bill that transforms how Medicaid and BadgerCare policy can be made and who can make it. This change allows the Department of Health Services (DHS) to rewrite Medicaid policy on eligibility, benefits and cost-sharing, with minimal public input or legislative oversight. Advocates for the state’s Medicaid program believe that this change severely limits the debate on this important issue, weakens the legislative branch of government, and strips citizens of their ability to engage with elected legislators on Medicaid policymaking. You can read more about this issue in a Wisconsin Council on Children and Families paper, or read Shawn Doherty’s explanation of this issue in the Capital Times.

Along similar lines, the Governor’s biennial budget bill includes a provision that would give the Department of Children and Families (DCF) the ability to make fundamental changes to the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy program.  DCF would have authority to impose waiting lists, increase family copayment amounts, adjust reimbursement payments to child care providers, and adjust the income levels for eligibility. This proposal may reduce public input and transparency even more than the budget adjustment bill did for Medicaid because there’s no requirement for public hearings, the adoption of rules, or legislative oversight. .

Our state’s executive branch already wields significant power compared to other states, based in part on the extensive partial veto powers of Wisconsin governors.  Further consolidating power in the Governor’s hands, as a number of other proposals the Governor has made this session do, would reduce the role of the Legislature and the ability for citizens to have their voices heard. Examples include:
  • Legislation passed in the special session gives the Governor power to veto rules promulgated by any state agency, including agencies with separately elected heads, such as the Department of Public Instruction or the Department of Justice. See this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Patrick Marley for more about this change.
  • A provision passed in the budget adjustment legislation changed 37 FTEs from classified positions to ones appointed by the Governor, giving him greater control over state agencies.
  • As part of the proposal in the biennial budget bill to split UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System, UW-Madison would be run by a separate board of trustees, and Governor Walker would appoint 11 of the 21 members. (Currently the staggered terms of board members prevent an incoming governor from being able to appoint the majority of the members so quickly.)
The Governor and Legislature need all the tools they can get to help address the budget deficit in a way that protects our state’s investments in schools, communities, and human capital.  But we should be wary of changes that concentrate power in the executive branch and reduce the opportunity for the public to provide input on policy changes that could affect hundreds of thousands of state residents.  Instead, let’s let the sun shine in.

Tamarine Cornelius and Jon Peacock

One Response to “Are There Clouds on Wisconsin’s Horizon?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for these helpful explanations.