Budget is Loaded with Changes Not Related to State’s Finances
The budget that heads to Governor Walker’s desk for a signature includes over a hundred policy items unrelated to the state’s finances, a sharp increase from recent budgets. Including non-fiscal items in the state budget reduces opportunities for public participation and legislative debate, and sometimes also makes it harder to identify which lawmakers introduced specific proposals.
The budget bill is the one piece of legislation that lawmakers must pass. In theory, the bill is limited to issues that affect the state’s finances, including how the state raises revenue, spends money, provides services, and organizes government functions. But it is difficult for lawmakers to resist adding policy items not related to the state’s finances to the budget bill, and that seems to be particularly true for this budget session.
The 2015-17 budget includes about 130 items not related to state finances – about four times the number included in the budget four years ago. Governor Walker may veto some non-fiscal items, bringing the total for the 2015-17 budget down a bit, and an official count of the number of items included will have to wait until the Legislative Fiscal Bureau updates this list. Still, the increase is dramatic.
Provisions in the 2015-17 budget that are unrelated to the state’s finances include:
- Allowing payday lenders to sell additional products, like car insurance, and to provide financial advice. The provision would also allow payday lenders to operate out of casinos and liquor stores, among other locations. Payday lenders charge high interest rates, and “80% of such loans are rolled over or followed by new loans within 14 days,” according to this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Requiring all high school students in both public and private schools to pass a civics test in order to get their diplomas. The state sets the requirements that students must meet to graduate from public high schools, but has not previously required students to pass a particular test. This is the first state-imposed graduation requirement for private schools.
- Limiting the ability of some municipalities to determine how to spend revenue raised by a tax on hotel rooms. The budget requires some municipalities to increase the share of hotel tax revenue that is spent directly on tourism activities, rather on municipal services that indirectly benefit tourists, such as keeping the streets clear from snow and making sure roads are in good repair. This change will require some municipalities to make damaging budget cuts, since state law prohibits them from raising property taxes to make up for the lost revenue.
- Removing the requirement that employers give employees at least one day off a week. The current requirement to give employees one day off a week already does not apply to janitors, security staff, bakeries, restaurants, hotels, and certain dairy agricultural plants. The provision in the budget requires employees to agree in writing to waive their day of rest.
Many of the non-fiscal items in the budget were made public just a few hours before being passed by the legislature’s budget committee, giving Wisconsin residents very little opportunity to make their opinions heard on these proposals. In contrast, policy items included in non-budget legislation are typically given a hearing in each house of the legislature, and have to clear a number of legislative hurdles, giving the public more time and opportunity to weigh in on the merits of the proposal.
Including non-fiscal items in the budget also makes it much more difficult for people to determine which legislator put forth the original proposal. For example, because the expansion of payday lending authority was included in the budget (via an omnibus motion) rather than through separate legislation, we may never know which legislator asked for it to be included. That lack of transparency damages public trust in the budget process and makes it difficult to hold lawmakers accountable.
Using the budget bill to pass items not related to the state budget is not a new development and certainly isn’t limited to Republicans. But the dramatic increase in the number of non-fiscal policy items in this budget should raise red flags regarding the integrity of the state’s budget process.