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Budget daylight bill stays in the dark

Paul Snyder
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Stockton’s railroad crossing improvement project would have been a plan with no money if a lawmaker had not set aside a $175,000 grant in the state budget.

The town’s annual road budget never exceeds $90,000, and Town Supervisor Jerry Piesik said if it takes a budget money set-aside to get the work done, he will take it.

“It’s not as if this is some little pet project,” he said. “It’s something we needed, and, certainly as a town, we don’t get much from the state.”

If a strong case can be made for such a project, it is worth keeping in the Wisconsin budget, said state Rep. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee. But he said he still thinks everyone involved in the state budget process deserves to know who wants money set aside and why they want it.

“I just want to bring attention to these earmarks,” he said, “from the tiniest amount to the largest, if it’s outside of the normal budget parameters.”

Zipperer is not getting much support in the state Legislature.

His bill, dubbed the earmark transparency act, has stalled in the Joint Committee on Finance since March.

“This is a bill almost anyone could support,” he said. “You’d think they’d want to at least talk about it. Why it’s not getting a hearing, I don’t know.”

Earmarks, which are budget items setting aside money for specific projects or programs, are a common debating point with every state budget. Lawmakers push to get a cut of state money for their districts, and criticism typically follows over whether state money should be doled out for projects and programs not tied to state government operations.

The year’s budget included, among others, money set-asides for an engineering building project at Marquette University and a nursing school project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of which were rejected in the final version of the budget.

Yet Zipperer said state law lets lawmakers add such money set-asides to the budget mere hours before voting, and the sponsor does not need to be identified. That, he said, would change with his bill.

In addition to requiring a money-set-aside report from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, his bill would require a 48-hour window to give lawmakers a chance to read the budget bill before voting.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau compiled a list of projects with money set-asides for the 2009-11 budget, but only at the request of Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, during conference committee hearings.

State Rep. Nick Milroy, D-Superior, said he is unfamiliar with Zipperer’s bill but said the budget process is transparent.

“The budget is available for public view when it goes out for vote, and I think that if there’s a project earmarked in somebody’s district, it’s pretty apparent who put that project in,” he said. “It sounds like this bill would just make it easier to use earmarks as political football.”

The Joint Committee on Finance was scheduled to meet Tuesday, but its agenda only included discussion of dispersing money through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. Neither of the committee’s co-chairmen, state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, and state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, were available before deadline to comment for this story.

Zipperer said the bill is not a political tactic. He said he proposed it three years ago, and it passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate.

“The shoe was on the other foot in the last session because the Assembly had a Republican majority,” he said. “I just think this is a good idea no matter who’s in charge.”

In Stockton, Piesik said he is more worried about finding the rest of the estimated $340,000 to get the rail crossing project rolling than whether there should be more transparency in the state budget.

“There’s money going into other pet projects and things that aren’t nearly as important as this,” Piesik said.

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