Hurry Up and Wait: Assembly Unnecessarily Rushes Passage of Constitutional Amendment for a Rainy Day Fund

Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 6:04 PM by

Recently Introduced Resolution Gets Floor Vote Today

Amending the Wisconsin Constitution involves a long and deliberative process. A joint resolution must be approved by both houses of the legislature in one biennial session, and then reintroduced and approved again (without any changes) in the next two-year session. It must then be ratified by Wisconsin voters in a statewide referendum. Thus, a constitutional amendment proposed now can’t receive final approval any sooner than the first statewide election in 2013.

In light of the importance of constitutional changes, the long process is intended to ensure careful consideration of a proposed amendment. With that in mind, it is very surprising and disappointing that a recently proposed constitutional change requiring contributions into a rainy day fund is being rushed through the Assembly. The proposal, Assembly Joint Resolution 21, was introduced on April 1 and is scheduled for a vote on the Assembly floor today. Although establishing a robust rainy day fund is a laudable endeavor, the proposed standards for taking money out of the fund are so strict that a majority of legislators wouldn’t have been able to tap the fund (without a two-thirds vote in each house) during either the 2009-11 biennial budget or the current 2011-13 budget process – despite the dire effects of the Great Recession on state revenue and safety net programs. (See the short paper critiquing AJR 21 on the Budget Project website.)

The rainy day fund proposal was introduced on Friday, April 1. On Tuesday, April 5, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee announced a public hearing on the measure on Thursday, April 7 – notwithstanding the general practice of providing at least 7 days advance notice for hearings. The lead Assembly author appears to have been the only person to testify, which isn’t terribly surprising given the short public notice for the hearing. A committee vote was held a few days later (April 12), and a vote in the full Assembly has been scheduled today.

Speeding the proposal to an Assembly floor vote so quickly is a surprising and perplexing choice – considering that it takes two sessions of the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment. Shortcuts now that preclude informed public input can’t hasten the final approval of the change, since it will have to be approved again in 2013 or 2014.

It’s unclear why Assembly leaders would choose to rush AJR 21 through the committee and to a floor vote, unless they are seeking to reduce the opportunity for public review and criticism. Alternatively, perhaps Assembly leaders aren’t trying to stifle public debate on the resolution; they may simply view it as unnecessary. Perhaps they believe that AJR 21 is so well crafted that public review and input couldn’t possibly improve it or change any minds. If so, we strongly disagree.

We think it’s a missed opportunity to rush such an important issue to its first floor vote without a meaningful opportunity for public involvement. Although many people believe, as we do, that establishing a strong rainy day fund is a good idea, we suspect that most people would agree with us that the state needs to be able to tap that fund during severe or prolonged periods of stormy fiscal weather.

As rainy days go, the Great Recession was a veritable monsoon, yet the criteria in AJR 21 would not have allowed a majority of state legislators to tap such a fund when we needed it during the 2009-11 biennium or during the upcoming 2011-13 budget bill. Let’s have a legislative review process that allows thorough public involvement in the question of whether those restrictive criteria should be enshrined in the state constitution.  Click here to read our short summary and analysis of the proposed amendment.

Jon Peacock

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