Budget Delay is Bad News for Transparency and Public Input
The process of open deliberations on the state budget bill has ground to a halt, as leaders in the majority party negotiate behind closed doors in an effort to resolve some of the unsettled budget issues. The result of this strategy and the delayed timetable is likely to be substantially less opportunity for the public to weigh in with legislators regarding the numerous issues that emerge during the closing stages of the budget process.
The Joint Finance Committee (JFC) hasn’t met in almost two weeks (since May 29), and apparently doesn’t plan to meet until Wednesday, June 17, or later. I can’t recall any other time when the budget committee has taken such a long break in its deliberations and has extended its work on the budget well into June.
Frankly, I’m not terribly bothered by the fact that there are behind-the-scenes negotiations on some of the key budget sticking points. That’s pretty much a given. What concerns me is that the budget bill won’t get out the Finance Committee until the second half of June (and we might not see the actual statutory language until sometime during the week of June 22). Since legislators intend to pass the budget by June 30, the JFC delays give the general public very little time to review changes the committee makes next week and then to get in touch with their legislators – including the 116 members of the legislature who don’t serve on the budget committee.
Back in January, Governor Walker said he wanted legislators to put the budget bill on a fast track. For most of the last three months, I was relieved that they didn’t do that because I think the budget process should be very deliberative, with plenty of opportunity for public input. I applaud the JFC co-chairs for not being pressured into a rushed schedule that could have limited public involvement. However, after two weeks of inaction, we now have a process that excludes the public and creates a timetable that will minimize public and legislative review of the changes made by the JFC.
One consequence of the delay is that it’s all the more important that the committee not load up the bill with all sorts of new items, including non-fiscal policy changes. Early in the process of reviewing the Governor’s bill, the committee stripped out many of the non-fiscal policy measures the Governor proposed, because legislators in both parties agree that the budget process doesn’t lend itself to careful review of non-fiscal measures, which could and should be passed as separate legislation. Yet the JFC sometimes adds non-fiscal policy items as part of a large, omnibus amendment just before it wraps up its work on the bill, and it would be especially problematic if the committee does that this year, so close to the end of June.
Legislators who aren’t members of the Finance Committee deserve to have a chance to carefully review the budget bill, and their constituents also deserve a chance to digest what’s in it and to interact with their Representative and Senator. That’s why it’s time for the committee to wrap up its work on the budget, and to do so without adding brand new items and non-fiscal policy.