December: Bring transparency to state spending

2009 Columns


It’s a simple premise; if the state is going to tax you to pay for something, you should at least be able to find out how those dollars are spent.

Thanks to the Internet, achieving this is easier than ever. And in a traditional home of open government like Wisconsin, one would think transparency in government spending here would be a no-brainer, right?

Apparently, the answer is no.

Historically, the Badger State has been known for good government. But in recent years, with budgets full of unaccounted earmarks, millions spent on no-bid contracts, and closed-door meetings resulting in deals with special interests, our state’s reputation has lost much of its luster. And now, legislative leaders are standing in the way of proposals to bring needed sunshine into this process.

Earlier this year, a group of reformed-minded legislators, including Rep. Bill Kramer, Leah Vukmir, Brett Davis and I, introduced the Taxpayers First Agenda. This includes the Earmark Transparency Act, the Checkbook Disclosure Act, and the Truth-in-Budgeting Act.

Each of these three bills put the taxpayers’ right to know ahead of politicians who want secrecy. They aim to open up a state budget process that is too often closed to the public, the media and watchdog groups.

The Agenda make no judgments on specific expenditures being inherently right or wrong, but simply opens up the state checkbook and budget process for all to see. By increasing access to information, we will also increase public input, which can only improve state government.

My Earmark Transparency Act requires that legislative pet projects, referred to as earmarks, include a listing of the author and beneficiary of each earmark. The bill also prohibits “air-drops,” which are new proposals crammed into the budget in the final hours of negotiation.

Eliminating “air-drops” will curtail the perception that a legislator’s vote may be bought and sold for pork projects and ensure that the public can weigh in on budget proposals before they are sent to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Kramer’s Checkbook Disclosure Act requires that all state expenditures be put online for all to see. State government shouldn’t hide its checkbook from the people of Wisconsin, and today’s technology make it simple enough to share this information. Over a dozen states have already done so, and more proposals are on their way.

The Truth-in-Budgeting Act, authored by Rep. Vukmir, mandates an honest budget – not one cobbled together with smoke-and mirrors, shifting expenses into the future for our kids to pay. The bill requires state agencies to use zero-based budgeting, and it puts our state on a path to an honestly balanced budget, rather than hiding millions, or even billions, in structural deficits every year.

Although some of these proposals passed the Assembly with bipartisan support last session, legislative leaders haven’t afforded them the time of day this year. Since being rolled out in February, only one has had a public hearing.

This is especially discouraging because the issue nationally has not been partisan. As a U.S. senator, Barack Obama championed online disclosure of federal expenditures, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the rules to require greater earmark transparency.

Divergent watchdog groups, such as Americans for Tax Reform and WISPIRG, have publicly advocated for items within the Taxpayers First Agenda.

Still, the Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate have thus far refused to bring our proposals up for a vote. With only months left in the session, I hope they will join our efforts to not only talk about open government, but to bring real change to how the state operates.


Rep. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) is the chair of the Taxpayer Protection Caucus in the state Assembly. This column is distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, which seeks to protect public access to meetings and records.