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July 11, 2005

Budget crafted as state slept, Night-owl Legislature makes critics uneasy

Madison - Dave Warren was asleep when Wisconsin legislators voted to spend the $9,888 in taxes, fees and federal funds that make up his per capita share of the $54 billion state budget.

All but a handful of other Wisconsin residents were asleep, too. Continuing a Capitol tradition of all-night haggling and deal-making, the Assembly passed its version of the two-year budget at 5:01 a.m. on June 22, and the Senate followed suit, passing a similar budget at 5:15 a.m. on July 1. The Assembly gave final approval of the Senate's amended version at 8:21 p.m. on July 5.

A business owner who attended one of the Legislature's budget hearings, Warren says he doesn't understand - or appreciate - the manner in which lawmakers build and adopt a spending plan.

"I'm just a hardware-store guy. I don't know the (Capitol) ins and outs," said Warren, who owns Dave's Ace Hardware in Milton.

"Things were changed in the middle of the night. I was disgusted by the whole thing."

It was a "vampire budget," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a non-profit group that monitors the Capitol.

Voting on a budget is the single-most important action lawmakers take, Heck said. Doing so in the middle of the night "undermines public confidence in the Legislature - which currently enjoys very little public confidence as it is," he said. "Did they hope no one was noticing?"

The process that delivered a 1,050-page state budget to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's desk last week is a biennial ritual that runs on secrecy, in-your-face partisan politics and 2 a.m. amendments that mysteriously appear without sponsors.

For example, no senator has publicly claimed responsibility for a 2:45 a.m. idea to begin making 31,000 non-union state workers contribute toward their pensions. The proposal never got a public hearing but was added to the budget by Senate Republicans.

Sleepless in Madison
That's the way the Legislature often must work, insisted Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee.

The committee met 18 times and took more than 450 votes over a two-month period, and Fitzgerald said sometimes marathon sessions were necessary to get the job done. The committee worked all night before finishing its work at about 6 a.m. on June 10.

The all-nighter was a necessity, Fitzgerald said. He noted that Democrats used the same tactics when they ran the Legislature.

"If you break and allow people to regroup, and sleep, and eat, and recharge their batteries, what you end up with is another debate on another day and a whole different set of dynamics," Fitzgerald said.

There is no other way to explain middle-of-the-night Assembly and Senate votes to spend billions of dollars in tax funds over the next two years, and to set priorities touching the lives of all of Wisconsin's 5.5 million residents.

To the average person, the process can be confusing, and frustrating.

Citizens often have to wait hours to testify at public hearings. When they finally get to talk, half the chairs of legislators may be empty, or lawmakers present may be signing mail to constituents back home.

Time is relative
Individuals try to follow debate personally, on the Internet or by sitting in Capitol galleries, only to give up because in the Legislature, the trains rarely run on time.

Joint Finance Committee meetings often are scheduled to start at 10 a.m., but the committee may not convene until 3 or 4 p.m., or later. Such loose scheduling might work for lawmakers, but average citizens with jobs and children to pick up at school, soccer practice or day care centers work on much tighter timelines.

Warren joined hundreds of Wisconsin residents at a March 9 public hearing in Watertown, waiting 75 minutes before he and other hardware store owners addressed lawmakers. The store owners asked that Wisconsin join a national push to ensure that Internet retailers collect Wisconsin's 5% sales tax. The Legislature refused to jump aboard, however.

"All I need is a level playing field," Warren said, explaining that the same cordless drill set he sells for $199 can be bought on the Internet for the same price, with free shipping and no sales tax charged.

Because Internet buyers of goods and services are not paying Wisconsin's 5% sales tax, state government is not collecting millions of dollars, Warren said. "I think that's unfair."

Warren's experience wasn't much different from that of Jim Heerey of New Auburn, who waited 3 1/2 hours to testify about forestry funding at the Finance Committee's hearing in Menomonie on March 14.

Heerey said he appreciated the opportunity to be heard, but since then has had trouble learning how forestry actually fared in the final product.

Dominating the six-month process of introducing, debating and passing the 2005-'07 budget were:

• Secrecy: It starts with the governor, who received state agency budget requests last fall, huddled in private for months with his top aides and advisers going over cash flow, tax and political-risk issues before giving his budget to the Legislature on Feb. 8.

A first-term Democrat elected with just 45% of the vote, Doyle is focused on getting re-elected in November 2006.

Republicans, who control both the Assembly and Senate, then took up where Doyle left off, meeting behind closed doors to make tentative spending decisions, craft complicated packages on thorny issues such as health care, and then ratifying those closed-door deals in public sessions.

Former Senate Majority Leader and former Supreme Court Justice Bill Bablitch said such meetings may violate the state's open meetings law.

Bablitch was among a group of Democratic lawmakers who in the 1970s routinely crafted the budget behind closed doors - until reporters and editors protested and the open meetings law was written. In the 1980s, Bablitch wrote a Supreme Court opinion on the issue.

"The basic premise is the public has a right to know," Bablitch said.

Fitzgerald defended the process, however. Often, he said, lawmakers need time before the Finance Committee convenes to be sure they agree on an issue before taking an official vote.

Privacy breeds candor, he said, with committee members "much more willing to talk about senators' personalities, and quirks and problems than they would be in the open."

The Republican caucuses left Democrats cooling their heels, waiting to hear from GOP leaders what direction the committee was heading.

Rep. Pedro Colón from Milwaukee, one of four Democrats on the budget committee, said he often felt "helpless" while waiting for the majority to release omnibus motions, giving him little time to be briefed and respond with his own motions.

Colón also said he often found out about what would be included in the budget when lobbyists came to his office seeking a Democratic vote.

"As soon as they are in trouble, they are in my office," Colón said.

• One-committee clout: Legislatures in most states have two or more committees that draft a state budget. Commonly, appropriations committees supervise spending, and ways and means committees handle tax policy.

That's not true in Wisconsin, where the Joint Finance Committee is among the most powerful legislative committees in the nation because it has both taxing and spending authority. For lobbyists and legislative leaders, it offers one-stop shopping.

Fitzgerald said the committee doesn't work without support from leadership, and it is ultimately accountable to the majority party in each house.

The bottom line: Before the Joint Finance Committee can act on any issue, dozens of people - party leaders, legislators and key lobbyists - have to sign off on a decision.

And that takes time.

• Winner-takes-all politics: Republicans made the most important budget decisions without consulting Democrats. That's one reason none of the 53 Democratic legislators cast a final vote for the budget at any point in the process.

Republicans "never talked to us," said Senate Minority Leader Judy Robson (D-Beloit).

But Fitzgerald and fellow Joint Finance Committee co-chairman, Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah), said this year's committee may have produced more bipartisan work than ever before. Kaufert told the Assembly that of the 450 votes the committee took, more than half of them were unanimous, reflecting Democratic votes.

• Non-stop fund raising: Between the time Doyle introduced his budget and the Legislature passed its version, 30 different lawmakers held fund-raisers. And since last November's election, Doyle has held five fund-raisers of his own.

Heck said the non-stop fund raising is "more disturbing" than the middle-of-the-night votes, because it turns the budget process into a "campaign cash shakedown period."

This year, Heck noted, Doyle has been raising as much money as he can for re-election in 2006, and Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) is doing the same to stake his run for the U.S. House next year.

From the July 11, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Posted by Ruth Robarts at July 11, 2005 4:13 PM