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VIEW FROM AROUND THE STATE: Republicans backtrack on commitment to clean state budget

Back in April, we congratulated the Legislature’s finance committee for responsibly purging all non-fiscal policy from Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget request.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and other members of the Republican-controlled committee removed 83 items from the state’s two-year spending plan that, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, had little or nothing to do with spending state money.

Nygren and Darling also had professed a desire to keep policy out of the budget by avoiding last-minute, surprise additions to the state spending plan as their committee wrapped up its work. That way, policies lacking enough support to clear the Legislature as individual bills couldn’t be slipped into the $76 billion budget late in the process, dodging scrutiny and accountability.

Well, so much for that.

The budget now heading to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk is stuffed with dozens of non-fiscal policy decisions — some of them questionable and puzzling — without public hearings or proper vetting. Even the sponsors of some of the proposals remain anonymous.

It’s a shameful reversal after months of GOP lawmakers’ seemingly respecting good-government principles in pursuit of a clean budget.

The list of non-fiscal policy items in the budget totaled 69 when the 2017-19 state spending plan cleared the Joint Finance Committee this month. And last week the Legislature sent the budget to the governor’s desk.

Among the non-fiscal items the finance committee added to the budget are:

  • Looser qualifications for UW System leaders.
  • A mandate for UW to report and reward professors for the time they spend teaching.
  •  Looser requirements for K-12 teacher certification.
  • Permission for overweight trucks to operate on certain highways.
  • A property tax exemption for land belonging to a Madison church, and for bible camps.
  •  A prohibition on local communities condemning property for new or expanded sidewalks.
  • Exemptions preventing primitive cabins from being subject to electrical wiring and plumbing codes.

The list goes on and on.

Whether these provisions are good ideas or not isn’t the point. They simply don’t belong in the state’s spending plan, and they should have to stand on their own merits to become law. Putting non-fiscal proposals in the budget is a recipe for bad government because it allows measures to advance that otherwise wouldn’t.

One of the few lawmakers who has consistently opposed policy in the budget is Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, who threatened to vote against his party’s budget because of all the policy it contained. Unfortunately, he caved on that demand.

Cowles now says he hopes the governor will remove policy with line-item vetoes. But that appears to be wishful thinking, given the governor had loaded up his original budget request with a long list of policy goodies.

The abandonment of a clean budget should trouble all citizens who want state decisions to reflect the will of the people, and to withstand scrutiny and transparency before becoming law.

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