April: End Wisconsin’s secretive ‘pocket veto’

2023 Columns

Recently, Wisconsin Watch revealed how members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s powerful budget committee secretly hold up projects or programs they don’t like.

They often do so, reporter Jacob Resneck found, without following a state law that requires the committee to schedule a hearing within 14 working days of such an objection. The hearings are designed to let the public, stakeholders and other lawmakers debate the merits of the expenditure.

And even in cases where a hearing is held, agencies and interested parties may not be allowed to speak.

The effect is a secretive “pocket veto” over projects and programs, ranging in recent years from $15.5 million for recreational access along the Pelican River, to a historic fraternity house remodel in Madison, to a $17.5 million program to encourage low-income Wisconsinites on Medicaid to become vaccinated — all without a public hearing or explanation.

Backers of some of these projects say they are left in the dark about who is objecting or why, with no opportunity to address concerns.

“There’s no transparency to the process, obviously. We don’t even know where to go,” said Bart Kocha, director of a nonprofit whose grant to restore an historic mansion near Madison’s Lake Mendota was secretly blocked without a hearing.

Republicans who run the Legislature have used the maneuver more frequently in recent years, Resneck found, especially to halt recreational or conservation projects. But these anonymous vetoes have been around for years, used by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

That doesn’t make it right.

This stealth maneuver also opens the door to corruption. Imagine the power a lawmaker wields by single-handedly and secretly blocking a project that a person or group has worked months or years to bring to fruition. What would that lawmaker want in return for lifting the objection?

This is not a theoretical threat.

In 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison, was charged with extortion for pressuring backers and opponents of an historic preservation project to donate to state Senate candidates of Chvala’s choosing. Both sides coughed up money to win Chvala’s approval, according to the criminal complaint. The extortion charge was later dismissed as part of a plea deal, but Chvala still ended up being sentenced to nine months in jail for other offenses.

In his 2023-25 budget, Gov. Tony Evers is proposing to do away with this secretive process when it comes to conservation and recreational projects paid for by stewardship funds. But GOP lawmakers have already vowed to rip up the document and start over, leaving little chance the Legislature will adopt Evers’ idea.

This is not the only stealth move lawmakers use. They also can add anonymously authored amendments to the state budget, which carries its own opportunity for mischief.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s “Legislative Wish List” includes a call to lawmakers to “prohibit any rule, motion, bill or amendment from being introduced without a clearly identified sponsor and cosponsors.”

Lawmakers have the chance to do the right thing — and finally let some sunlight into their  murky budget process.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Dee J. Hall, the Council’s secretary, is the managing editor of Wisconsin Watch.