Although not required by law to do so, the Legislature’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (“LFB”) routinely responds to individual members’ requests to identify all of the non-fiscal policy items included in the biennial budget. The LFB generally identifies these items as having no fiscal effect on the state budget or having policy implications that far exceed any potential fiscal effect. This year, the LFB identified 49 such items included in the Governor’s 1,600 page budget document. Among some of the more controversial non-fiscal policy items identified by the LFB include:
- Converting the Natural Resources Board and the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to an Advisory Council;
- Allowing the Governor’s Administration greater control over the state building process by limiting the Building Commission’s opportunities to exercise oversight over changes to projects and cost-overruns;
- Requiring counties – rather than municipalities – to administer property tax assessments;
- Requiring disclosure on property tax bills of each taxpayer’s proportionate share of the debt service on bonds issued by the taxing jurisdiction; the amount of taxes levied for the maintenance and operation of each taxing jurisdiction; the amount of taxes levied on other miscellaneous charges; and
- Eliminating numerous oversight and reporting requirements for the private School Choice program.
The Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (“JFC”) is considered to be one of the most powerful committees in the country, in large part because of its members’ ability to shape the final budget product. However, another, lesser-known reason for that distinction is that the Committee’s Co-Chairs are given the authority to unilaterally determine which items they consider policy, and then remove them from the budget without a single vote ever being taken.
This year, the Co-Chairs determined that 14 of the 49 items identified by the LFB should be removed from the budget and drafted as separate legislation for consideration by the legislature as part of its regular process. The items slated for removal by the Co-Chairs include some of the Governor’s most controversial proposals, including his proposals to:
- Create Advisory Councils out of the DATCP and Natural Resources Board;
- Remove oversight over state building projects from the Building Commission; and
- Transfer property tax assessments from individual municipalities to counties.
The remaining 35 items identified by the LFB as non-fiscal policy items left in tact by the Co-Chairs will now be considered by the full JFC, despite Committee Democrats’ attempt to remove them during the Committee’s first executive session. That attempt failed on a 12-4 party line vote. Future attempts to remove individual policy items will likely meet a similar fate.
That’s not to say all votes the Committee takes will be partisan ones, however. On Wednesday, April 15th, the Committee’s opening day, 18 of their 22 votes to approve items were unanimous. Although that record is due in large part to the lack of controversial items on the Committee’s agenda, there is something about the process that the JFC uses that makes it a more collegial committee than most.
Still, major items loom large on future agendas. And, although the leaders from both parties in the Senate seem to agree on the need to eliminate Governor Walker’s cut to K-12 education in the first year of biennium, there remains a major chasm between the leaders as to what the appropriate size of the investment should be. Similar issues exist between the parties on what it means to preserve SeniorCare, the state’s successful prescription drug program for the elderly; whether the state’s community-based long-term care program is in need of restructuring; and, how to give the UW System flexibility while still maintaining affordability.
To be sure, more bipartisan votes are on the way from this Committee. But, at least in regard to the state’s major budget items, even the JFC isn’t immune from the incipient creep of partisan politics.