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Joint Finance Committee

Credit the Joint Finance Committee -- including co-leaders Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, left, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills -- for purging non-fiscal policy out of Gov. Scott Walker's state budget request.

Congratulations to the Legislature’s finance committee for responsibly purging all non-fiscal policy out of Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget request.

This hasn’t happened since 2003. And back then, a Republican Legislature was pulling policy out of a Democratic governor’s spending plan, so partisan policies were at play.

Last week, the Republican-run Joint Finance Committee removed all 83 non-fiscal items — as identified by the nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau — from its own Republican governor’s budget. Well done, committee leaders Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and other members.

Now the goal should be to keep policy changes that don’t relate to spending money out of the budget for good as the committee and then the full Legislature approve a final two-year tax and spending plan. Unfortunately, Nygren has already hedged on whether some of the unvetted policy could come back in. It shouldn’t.

This is a good-government issue that too often gets short shrift from both political parties. When governors or lawmakers slip public policy into the state budget, they are attempting to fast-track changes to state law that, in many cases, could never survive public scrutiny and tough votes if the policies were to stand on their own merits as separate bills.

The governor’s budget had included language that would have allowed local governments to bury meeting minutes and other public notices on obscure government websites, rather than publishing them in local newspapers. The proposal had nothing to do with spending state money.

Gov. Walker’s budget also sought to make Wisconsin the only state without a minimum number of hours required for educating children. Other non-fiscal items included the elimination of several boards and councils, and changes to the private school voucher program.

This prompted some whining from the conservative special-interest group Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin.

But if the governor’s policy ideas are so important and necessary, they should be able to survive a legislative process controlled entirely by Republicans, and become law as individual bills. If they don’t relate to spending money, they shouldn’t be buried in a $76 billion state budget for expediency and to help lawmakers dodge accountability.

Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, commended his colleagues on the finance committee for their honorable actions last week.

“I too, wholeheartedly, agree that the state budget is no place for policy items,” Cowles said. “I look ahead to working with my colleagues on a much cleaner budget.”

This is the same Joint Finance Committee that tried to dismantle much of Wisconsin’s open records law on the eve of the July Fourth weekend two years ago. So we hope the committee has learned its lesson and is sincere about keeping rash and surprise policy changes out of the budget for good.

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