Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Now is the Time to Reform the State Budget Process

Press Release
July 8, 2009


Jay Heck – 608/256-2686


Rescission of Legislature's Exemption From Open Meetings Law and
Ban on All Campaign Fundraising During State Budget Work
Should Both Be Enacted into Law

For the first time in 32 years, the biennial state budget has been enacted into law before the June 30th statutory deadline. Obviously, that is a good thing. But the process of constructing and deciding the 2009-2011 budget was as secretive as any budget process in memory. Most of the key decisions and changes were made out of the public eye, often in closed partisan caucus meetings that excluded both the media and other observers. Only authorized staff were present while legislators made key policy decisions.

And, while the Assembly Democratic leadership imposed a rule prohibiting all members of the Assembly from engaging in campaign fundraising while the Assembly was considering the budget, the prohibition did not include the leadership legislative campaign committees -- which in previous years have raised the lion's share of the campaign money during the budget period. The State Senate and Governor, meanwhile, raised campaign funds without hesitation during the entire budget process.

Common Cause in Wisconsin (CC/WI) strongly believes that the best time to reform the state budget process -- which almost everyone in Wisconsin agrees is deeply flawed -- is now, while the bitter taste of this past budget process is still fresh in the mouths of the public and of some lawmakers. An effective way to begin the reformation of the budget process would be to enact into law two measures that have been introduced in the Legislature. Both measures should be expedited and advanced by holding public hearings this summer -- and then considered and passed when the next legislative floor session commences in September.

The closed-door, secretive budget process is a problem that stems from the fact that the legislative partisan caucuses in which most of the important budget decisions are debated and decided, are exempt from the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, enacted in 1976. Here is how the statute reads:

1.3.7. State Legislature. In General the open meetings law applies to the state Legislature. Sec. 19.87, Stats. The law does not apply to any partisan caucus of the senate or assembly. Sec. 19.87(3), Stats. The open meetings law also does not apply where it conflicts with a rule of the Legislature, senate or assembly. Sec. 19.87(2), Stats.

As a consequence of the above exemptions to the law, the public is often shut out of the most important budget decisions. Clearly, this is a law that has long been in need of change. CC/WI supports ASSEMBLY BILL 143 -- which simply put, would rescind the Legislature's exemption from the state's open meeting laws -- passed by the Legislature thirty three years ago. It is bipartisan legislation introduced by State Representatives Cory Mason (D-Racine) and Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah). Other sponsors include Reps. Terese Berceau (D-Madison), Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), Roger Roth (R-Appleton) Jeff Wood (I-Bloomer), and Sen. Alan Lasee (R-De Pere).

CC/WI also strongly supports Assembly Bill 42, bipartisan legislation that would prohibit elected state officials and their campaign committees from fundraising during state budget deliberations. Rep. Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington), the Assistant Minority Leader, is the principal author of the measure which applies the fundraising ban to the legislative campaign committees -- which do most of the fund raising during the budget period -- and extends the fundraising restriction for the governor and lieutenant governor to include the period immediately after the general election when they are involved in drafting the governor’s proposed budget. This is a version of the budget fundraising prohibition measure first suggested by CC/WI to then-State Senator Lynn Adelman (D-Waukesha) who introduced it for the first time in Wisconsin in 1997. Other states -- including Minnesota and even Texas -- have a similar common sense measure like this in place. Wisconsin must not delay enactment of AB 42 any longer.

At a CC/WI State Governing Board Meeting in February, Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson (D-Kaukauna) and Rep. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire), the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Elections and Campaign Finance Reform, both said that the Assembly leadership supports AB 42. Further, while Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) and Governor Jim Doyle have expressed support for this measure in the near past, Decker appears to have withdrawn his support. On June 16th, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported: "Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) doesn't want to approve the proposed [ban on campaign fundraising during the budget] law, which a bipartisan coalition of Assembly members support, saying current laws are adequate because legislators have to disclose who is funding their campaigns."

Despite this outrageous Decker flip-flop, the Legislature should press forward and make this measure a priority. Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) and Decker -- or other State Senators in defiance of Decker -- should make reforming the state budget process a priority now and put Assembly Bill 143 and Assembly Bill 42 near the top of their list of reform legislation to pass and get enacted into law this September.

Jay Heck
Executive Director
Common Cause in Wisconsin
152 W. Johnson Street, Suite 212
Madison, WI 53703

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Jeff said...

Those measures are a start, but I worry about the fundraising ban being a placebo.

So long as the process is for sale, restricting when the buyers can write the checks is little more than an inconvenience.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, we have to start somewhere.

And I would argue that "restricting when buyers can write the checks" will be far more than "an inconvenience."

After all, timing is - as they say - everything.

Also, I would love to know exactly how removing exemptions to the open meetings law -- thus promoting greater transparency in government -- could be viewed as a placebo.