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Budget shake-up ratchets up tension between GOV legislators and governor

Joint Finance Committee co-chairpersons Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, left, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, shook up the state budget process last week by announcing they would strip all non-fiscal policy items from Gov. Scott Walker's budget.

Last week, the leaders of the Legislature’s powerful budget committee tossed out dozens of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposals — including his entire transportation budget — though some could be coming back as lawmakers write their own version of the state’s new two-year spending plan.

The 83 proposals stripped out of the 2017-19 budget were identified by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau as nonfiscal policy items, which lawmakers of both parties have historically used to enact laws that might have a tougher time passing outside the cover of a sweeping biennial budget bill.

The removal of many of the items infuriated conservatives already skeptical about record spending levels in Walker’s $76 billion proposal, said Eric Bott, state director of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin.

“We already had a fight but they may have turned it into an absolute brawl,” Bott said.

Bott said the committee removed many substantial conservative policies, such as changing how administrative rules are reviewed, ending the prevailing wage for construction projects, eliminating certain occupational licenses and codifying a University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents policy on campus free speech.

“This ultimately makes getting a budget accomplished more difficult because you already had conservative senators with strong reservations about the level of spending in the budget,” Bott said. “Now you’ve pulled very strong reform policy out, which will further dissuade them from supporting the ultimate budget.”

In an interview, Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said some policy items could make their way back into the budget, either after being vetted in legislative committees or as part of the committee’s contentious 999 omnibus motion.

The 999 motion has been controversial in recent budget cycles for including policy items late in the process the majority party can insert without individual authorship and with limited public scrutiny.

In the last budget, the 999 motion included a proposal to gut the state public records law. That proposal was removed in response to a public backlash. Four years ago, the motion was introduced in the middle of the night on the last day of budget committee deliberations and passed early the next morning after hours of debate.

Nygren said the unusual removal of all policy items was not intended to set a precedent for future budgets. Some of the items, such as one that would allow local governments to consolidate departments, might get a public hearing and vote in committee before being added back to the budget.

“If we think they’re relevant, they might be put back in,” Nygren said. “The fact that we’ve got a lot of members who don’t sit on the budget committee, there’s interest in finding ways for them to weigh in.”

Democrats and their supporters have cheered the removal of other provisions, such as a study of moving oversight for large-scale animal farms from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and making certain university student fees optional.

“I’m really glad they did what they did,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, adding he would hope Republicans don’t add policy items back into the budget.

“It’s still policy if they put it back in,” he said. “The budget is not the best place for policy. If it’s a good idea, we’re in session. Draft a piece of legislation.”

Asked which policy items are priorities, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson mentioned eliminating mandatory student fees, dropping the prevailing wage on government construction projects and agency printing, mailing and publishing requirements that Walker’s budget would have removed.

“Governor Walker included those items because he believes they are strong conservative reforms that will save taxpayer dollars,” Evenson said. “The governor will continue to champion these reforms, knowing that they will pay long-term dividends to Wisconsin.”

A rare move

It’s only the second time in 25 years the Joint Finance Committee has immediately removed all nonfiscal policy items from the budget, according to the fiscal bureau. Since the bureau started tracking such items in 1993, the Legislature’s budget committee has always removed some policy items, with the fewest being 12 of the 58 items Walker included in 2013.

Walker’s 83 policy items this year were the most he has proposed and the most in a governor’s budget since 2001.

The budget committee hasn’t scrapped a portion of the governor’s budget since 2007, fiscal bureau director Bob Lang said. Assembly Republicans had discussed tossing out Walker’s entire budget and working from scratch, a move that hadn’t occurred since 1991 when Democrats controlled the Legislature and Republican Tommy Thompson was governor.

Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert, a former Republican representative who as budget committee co-chairman in 2003 was the last to remove all policy items from a governor’s budget, said he’s not surprised the Legislature is starting over on the rancorous transportation budget.

“That forces a partnership where they’ve got to bring the governor to the table to work on it,” Kaufert said.

In interviews, both leaders of the Joint Finance Committee said starting over on the DOT budget was a compromise between Assembly GOP leaders, who wanted to build the entire budget from scratch, and Senate GOP leaders, who wanted to work from Walker’s blueprint.

Nygren said while Assembly Republicans wanted to scrap Walker’s entire budget proposal, there was concern the move would result in major changes to Walker’s $650 million increase in K-12 education funding — a priority for the governor.

Nygren said there isn’t yet agreement between the Assembly and Senate on solving the transportation budget’s long-term funding problems. By starting over, the budget no longer includes $500 million in new borrowing for roads, though Nygren said he expects there will be some borrowing in the final package.

He also said the solution should maintain the governor’s support for existing projects, such as the Interstate 39/90 expansion from Madison to the state border and the Verona Road interchange in Dane County, rather than shuffling the deck of which projects get funded.

Walker’s budget delays some of the state’s anticipated major projects, such as expansions of Interstate 94 in southeast Wisconsin and the Beltline-I-39/90 interchange.

‘Very unusual’ dynamics

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the Senate remains divided among several approaches to solving the nearly $1 billion shortfall in the transportation budget.

“We have to have a big picture, but we’re not going to be able to fund the big picture in this one budget,” Darling said. “There has to be a plan and strategy about how we’re going to tackle our transportation needs.”

One option Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has floated and Walker backs is to move general tax dollars into the transportation fund, though that wouldn’t necessarily create a long-term solution.

It also could depend on how much additional revenue is available when the fiscal bureau updates its economic forecast next month.

Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said local governments are nervous that starting over on transportation will put the governor’s increases for local roads in jeopardy.

“The dynamics are very unusual right now,” Witynski said. “I think it ratchets up the pressure to come up with a solution.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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