Non-fiscal Policy in the Budget: A Numerical Assessment of the Non-numerical Provisions
For as long as I can remember, Wisconsin legislators have talked about why non-fiscal policy measures don’t belong in state budget bills. The practice of including such items in the budget often prevents those measures from getting much public input or legislative scrutiny, and to the extent that those items do get debated, that reduces the capacity of policymakers to focus on the hundreds of important state fiscal choices that should get lawmakers’ undivided attention.
I strongly agree with the arguments for keeping non-budgetary policy out of the budget, which is why it’s so disappointing that the recently enacted biennial budget is loaded with non-fiscal measures that don’t belong in such legislation. An August 7 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau provides a comprehensive list of the 118 non-fiscal policy items that were in the budget initially or subsequently added – including those that were ultimately enacted and the much smaller number that were deleted by the Legislature or vetoed by the Governor.
From that LFB document, I tallied the following “by the numbers” analysis of the non-fiscal policy measures in the biennial budget:
58 = the number of non-fiscal policy items included by the Governor in the bill he introduced (AB 40)
60 = the total of such measures added by the Legislature (59 in the Joint Finance Committee and one in the Assembly).
23 = the number of non-budgetary measures removed by the Finance Committee.
8 = the number that were vetoed by the Governor (from those added by the Legislature).
87 = the total number of non-fiscal policy measures enacted in the budget bill (2013 Act 20).
A June 6 WCCF blog post provides examples of some of the controversial and inappropriate policy items included in the budget approved by the Legislature. Fortunately, the 8 policy measures vetoed by the Governor included two from that list that I found to be especially problematic – the portion of the bill authorizing bail bond agents and the provision severing ties between UW and the Center for Investigative Journalism. However, the Governor signed into law many other controversial measures that would have benefitted from far closer public and legislative scrutiny.
The budget bill is a huge document, even without the addition of non-fiscal measures. Lawmakers do a great disservice to transparency and public participation in the legislative process when they cram the bill full of non-budgetary, special interest items – such as relaxing restrictions on payday lenders, retroactively changing product liability law to alter the course of current litigation, and making it easier for cable TV companies to cut off a customer’s service.
This procedural concern isn’t new, but I think this budget was especially disappointing for the amount of non-fiscal policy (much of which was inserted very late in the process). I suspect the problem will continue to grow – regardless of who is in the majority – especially when one party controls both the Legislature and the Governor’s office. In light of the huge cost of elections, the problem is likely to escalate – as long as campaign contributions from special interest groups are more important to lawmakers than the public disdain for this practice.
In short, transparency and public participation in the legislative process will continue to wane unless or until the voters push back when they go to the ballot box, and offset the net advantage to be gained by adding special interest goodies and circumventing public involvement.