Marathon Back-room Negotiations Minimize Legislative Debate and Public Input  

Sausage grinding

Keep that unsightly lawmaking to yourself!

It is sometimes said that people who like laws and sausages shouldn’t watch either being made.  If that’s true, I suppose an argument could be made that GOP leaders were doing us a favor by spending the bulk of the day Tuesday in behind-closed-doors budget negotiations, before resuming the Finance Committee deliberations long after most Wisconsinites had gone to bed.  (Before I elaborate, I hope that any producers of quality sausages will forgive me for the comparison to lawmaking.)

The back-room negotiations Tuesday and in the preceding days weren’t simply about the major unfinished areas of the budget, such as K-12 education issues and tax policy.  As is all-too-frequently the case, the majority party also put together an omnibus catch-all motion that takes items from the wish lists of many legislators.

This sort of motion significantly reduces transparency in the budget process, especially since these measures often appear out of nowhere in the last hour of the Finance Committee’s work, and sometimes receive little public or legislative scrutiny over the remainder of the budget process.  And in some cases we don’t even learn who submitted these items for inclusion in the broad, catch-all motion.  In addition, many of them are non-fiscal policy items that have gotten little or no debate and have no business being in a budget bill.

To some extent this wrap-up motion, which has become a regular Christmas tree tradition at the end of the Finance Committee’s deliberations, serves as a way to get recalcitrant legislators on board the budget and to minimize the possibility that the majority party needs to allow passage of any amendments later in the process.  However, the wrap-up motion also appears to be used by legislative leaders as an easy way to make non-fiscal policy changes that are on their own legislative agendas, without the bother of introducing and passing separate legislation.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, JFC members received a 12-page “budget modification” motion, with 37 different items.  It was approved a little before 6:00 a.m., apparently with little debate among the exhausted committee members.  By that point the package had grown to 40 items after Democrats tacked on three relatively trivial measures of their own (such as making kringle the official state pastry), before voting against the motion.  As is typically the case, the motion was approved on a party-line, 12-4 vote.

In a WCCF blog post today I summarize many of the non-fiscal policy measures that were added by the wrap-up motion.  It’s a very diverse list of legislative proposals.  I think only a couple of them had even been floated prior to Wednesday, such as the very controversial proposal for authorizing bail bond agents, which has been widely criticized by criminal justice experts.  Many of the others came out of the blue, such as requiring UW to sever ties with the Center for Investigative Journalism, establishing a much shorter period for a payday loan to be overdue before it is considered to be in default, making retroactive changes in product liability laws to restrict litigation, defining the location of the former Lake Michigan shoreline in Milwaukee, and removing a restriction on when cable companies can disconnect service.

When the bill gets to the floor of the legislature, there will be lots of complaints from Democrats about some of the non-fiscal policy measures, citing both substantive concerns and the procedural ones I raised here.  However, they don’t have the moral authority to argue persuasively about the procedural concerns because both parties have been guilty of this practice over many sessions.  That’s one of the reasons why members of the public have to demand an end to this misuse of the budget process, because we’re the ones who get left out and who will have to raise our voices collectively to make reforms.

The admonition that we might not want to watch laws or sausages being made isn’t relevant if we’re using high quality standards or, alternatively, if we find the end product distasteful.  When the end result of the budget process includes an unsavory collection of special interest measures that reflects poorly on our state, it’s time to pay attention and demand reforms in this sausage-making.  A great place to start would be to keep non-fiscal policy out of the budget – at all stages of the process.  And I think almost all of us can agree that not taking votes between bar time and breakfast would also be a major improvement.

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Photo by Rachel Tayse released under a Creative Commons license.

WI Budget Project

WI Budget Project