Budget Committee Unveils a 67-Item Motion Stuffed with Special Interest Measures
At about 5:00 pm today, as most Wisconsinites were starting the 3-day weekend, the budget committee co-chairs unveiled a “wrap-up” motion that is 24 pages long and stuffed with 67 different items – many of which are special interest measures that have nothing to do with the state budget. This omnibus motion is the culmination of more than a month of deliberations behind closed doors that included special interest groups, while excluding the general public.
The timing of this motion – right before the holiday weekend and so close to the planned completion of the budget bill – makes it almost impossible for these complicated issues to get anything close to the public and legislative scrutiny that they deserve.
The 67 miscellaneous measures unveiled Thursday evening are in addition to many other special interest measures added earlier in the day, such as:
- creating a sales tax exemption for deer sold to Wisconsin hunting reserves and game farms;
- reducing taxes for brewers of pear cider; and
- cutting by $1.1 million over the next two years a tax that applies to cigarette manufacturers, marketers and distributors.
For those special interest tax breaks, at least an argument can be made that the budget bill is the right vehicle for tackling those topics. The same can’t be said for many of the items in the wrap-up motion, #999. Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the non-fiscal policy measures in that motion:
- sharply curtailing access to public records – particularly legislative communications, including drafting requests for bills (which are now open records once the bill is introduced);
- expanding the types of financial products and services a payday lending company may provide;
- eliminating the authority of the Dept. of Workforce Development to adopt rules setting 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;
- permitting employees to state in writing that they voluntarily choose not to have at least one day of rest each week;
- creating a process for resolving disputes over insurance coverage of chiropractic care;
- making various changes to the power of the Milwaukee County Board and the County Executive; and
- making it more difficult for a municipality that owns and operates a water or sewer utility to refuse to extend service to a neighboring locality.
That list barely scratches the surface of the 24-page motion. (UPDATE: For a much more detailed and more pointed critique of the new policy measures, see this blog post by “Jake, Formerly of the LP.”) Some of the items are amendments to earlier committee actions – and those changes serve to illustrate why it’s useful to let some time elapse after legislative changes are first recommended by a committee before they are approved on the floor by both houses of the legislature.
It’s an abuse of the budget process to insert non-fiscal policy items into a budget bill, even at the start of the budget process. But adding so many non-fiscal special interest measures to the bill in early July, after the budget process was supposed to be finished, is especially egregious because that timing allows even less opportunity for careful public review and input.
In short, the final motion unveiled today 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.
July 3rd Follow-up:
The budget process took a turn for the worse Thursday night after I completed my blog post. Democrats on the budget committee attempted to offer a motion to delete from the omnibus motion the sweeping changes to the Open Records Law. I was shocked to learn today that Chairman Nygren wouldn’t allow the Democrats to offer that amendment.
I don’t know if the practice in the Finance Committee has changed, but in past years I think committee members were routinely allowed to have a motion “divided” in order to have separate votes on different portions. Chairman Nygren’s very surprising decision not to allow any amendment to or division of the omnibus motion protected the GOP members of the committee from being on the record as to whether they support the sweeping changes to the Open Records Law. (And if those changes are enacted, records about who initiated the statutory changes might never be open.)
On a more positive note, some Republicans have begun to speak out against the open records changes. Attorney General Schimel said in a press release today: “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the Budget Bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.”
Senator Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) issued a press release today with an even stronger rebuke of the open records changes:
“I was shocked and appalled to see the attack on open and transparent government last night by the Joint Committee on Finance. Limiting public access to legislative communications and records is against all I have stood for while in office, and I will not support a budget that includes this assault on democracy.”
See more reaction to the proposal at WisOpinion.com.