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Secret moves hide Wisconsin lawmakers’ actions from public

By CV VITOLO-HADDAD and DEE J. HALL of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It was 10:30 p.m. on June 3, 2011, the last day of deliberations on Wisconsin’s state budget.

Members of the Joint Finance Committee, some with deep circles under their eyes after days of fighting over budget proposals, perked up when two Republicans, Sen. Glenn Grothman and Rep. Robin Vos, came out with a surprise: a massive tax cut worth hundreds of millions of dollars for manufacturers and agricultural businesses.

The official estimate projected that the proposal, when fully phased in, would cause the state — which had already made large cuts to education and other programs to balance the budget — to lose about $128.7 million a year.

State Rep. Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat from Milwaukee, appeared stunned by the size of the tax cut, asking the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to add up the total cost over its four-year phase-in.

“This is nauseating,” said Grigsby, who left the Legislature in 2013 and died in 2016. “Really? $320 million to start, and then $128.7 million after that per year? Really? Wow. Wow.”

Vos, then a chairman of the committee, and Grothman, now a U.S. representative, argued the reduction would bring jobs to Wisconsin, which at the time had a 7.6 percent unemployment rate — although the proposal itself had no requirement that companies add jobs, or even retain them, to qualify for the credit.

After a brief and sometimes heated debate, the tax reduction, now known as the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit, passed on a 12-4 party-line vote.

Within 30 minutes, without any public hearings or public notice, lawmakers had endorsed one of the biggest tax breaks enacted under Gov. Scott Walker. Within 13 days, the Republican-led Assembly and Senate had approved the 2011-13 spending plan, including the tax reduction, which Walker signed into law.

Since 2010, when voters swept Republicans into power, Wisconsin legislators have increasingly used such secretive maneuvers to keep the public in the dark about big spending and policy changes, interviews and records show.

An investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found the Legislature systematically diminishes the voices of the public by: introducing budget amendments at the end of the approval process with no public notice or debate; approving anonymous, last-minute budget motions containing a grab bag of changes, including big policy proposals that have nothing to do with state spending; and changing the scope and effects of a bill after a public hearing has been held, a step that excludes regular citizens from having meaningful influence on legislation before it is enacted.

Secretive techniques are not unique to Republicans — or even to Wisconsin. Democrats, when they controlled the Legislature and governor’s office before the 2010 elections, played the same game.

Meanwhile, as for the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit, estimates show it will end up costing the state $334 million worth of revenue this budget year. That’s more than double what was originally projected.

“The fact that the tax cut was passed at the last minute with no public input was not good,” said Tamarine Cornelius, an analyst with the left-leaning Wisconsin Budget Project. “But it’s not that unusual. A lot of things get slipped into budget amendments; it’s just that they don’t usually wind up costing upwards of $300 million a year.”

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers has called for the tax credit to be severely curtailed, noting that nearly 80 percent of the money goes to people and businesses earning at least $1 million a year. Walker has said eliminating the credit would harm Wisconsin’s economy.

Studies disagree about whether the credit spurred job growth. Noah Williams, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, credits it with creating 20,000 manufacturing jobs. But the Wisconsin Budget Project cites federal statistics showing state manufacturing job and wage growth continue to be slower here than what’s been seen nationally on average.

But one thing is indisputable: The public and many lawmakers never had a chance to debate the likely merits and risks of the plan before it was passed.

One secretive mechanism used by the Legislature is the final omnibus budget motion, sometimes known as motion 999, although it could bear any number.

The motion compiles a vast array of anonymously introduced proposals, then the Joint Finance Committee votes on the changes. The public has little chance to comment.

Former state Sen. Tim Cullen, who served as Senate majority leader, said in the 1970s and ’80s, 999 motions had an informal limit of $25,000 for each proposal and were prohibited from having broad or statewide consequences.

However, in recent years, these budget proposals have included sweeping proposals. One from a few years ago would have dismantled the Wisconsin Open Records Law — a proposal that sparked a statewide backlash that crossed ideological lines, prompting Walker and GOP leaders to remove it from the 2015-17 budget.

“They tried to destroy the Open Records Law and open meetings. That was the most atrocious thing I’ve seen in years and years and years,” said Orville Seymer, founder of Citizens for Responsible Government, a conservative government accountability group.

A comparison of these end-of-the-session budget motions showed both parties have used the mechanism “as a hiding spot for pet projects.”

Their use has ballooned under Walker, according to Larry Gallup, a senior editor at USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

“In the five budget bills before 2011, the 999 motion averaged five pages and 15 motions,” Gallup wrote in a 2017 column for the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “But with the 2011-13 bill, the bill expanded to 11 pages and 54 proposals. By 2015-17, it had ballooned to 24 pages and 81 proposals.”

Most legislative candidates who answered a recent poll on government openness agree that anonymous motions should be a thing of the past. All but one of the 75 legislative candidates in the approaching election who answered the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council poll agreed that all bills, motions and amendments should include sponsor names.

State Rep. Ron Tusler, a Republican from Menasha, who is running for re-election to Assembly District 3, commented in the poll: “If you can’t even stand by your own bill, you shouldn’t ask me to stand by it.”

His opponent, Scott Gavin, a Democrat from Little Chute, agreed, saying, “Accountability is key.”

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Elections Research Center, said budget bills are favorite hiding places for “things (lawmakers) thought might not pass on their own.” Burden said the anonymity of the 999 motion is politically enticing because the majority party can “bury” unpopular proposals in it.

This kind of opacity is not unique to Wisconsin.

In November 2017, the Kansas City Star published an investigation which found that more than 90 percent of Kansas laws over the past decade has begun as anonymously submitted bills, meaning the people of Kansas typically did not know who introduced their legislation or why.

In Wisconsin, State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, a Democrat from Alma, said many special interests, such as the rent-to-own industry, have used this secretive method to exert more influence over Wisconsin’s budgets.

“The problem the Legislature faces now is that the groups, these shadow groups, have much more power to be able to get pieces of policy that they want into the budget,” Vinehout said.

Another stealth move is reminiscent of the 1978 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which aliens inhabit the bodies of people while keeping their outside appearance the same. In the case of the Wisconsin Legislature, it’s bills that are being secretly transformed.

Bills are sometimes introduced ostensibly for one purpose, but then later amended to do something entirely different — often after public hearings have ended. One such body-snatcher bill, Senate Bill 54, was introduced in February 2017. The bill would have required the state to recommend revoking extended supervision, parole or probation if a person is charged with a new crime.

A year later, a group of GOP lawmakers added a $350 million prison to SB 54, and the Assembly passed it that same day after having given the public no chance to comment.

Molly Collins, advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said more than 50 groups lobbied against the bill in the Senate, where it died.

Said Collins: “Building a new prison had not been discussed, let alone borrowing $350 million to fund it.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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