September: Pull back veil on budget tweakers

2013 Columns

Mark Pitsch

State Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling might be the masterminds behind plans to legalize bounty hunters in Wisconsin, boot an investigative journalism center from the UW-Madison campus and add a credit for private school tuition to the state’s tax code.

After all, the Republican co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee are the official sponsors of Motion 999, added to the biennial state budget in the early morning hours of June 5. The motion included those measures and nearly two dozen more, all approved with minimal debate.

Or Nygren and Darling may just have been carrying water for other legislative Republicans. We may never know.

That’s because the legislative process allows these measures to be added without being tied to any particular source.

Gov. Scott Walker vetoed the budget amendments regarding bounty hunters and the investigative journalism center, but left intact the new tuition tax credit of up to $10,000 for each private school student.

Doesn’t the public have a right to know who came up with these ideas? This would let voters hold their elected officials accountable at the ballot box and look for potential conflicts, like special interest cash flowing to a given lawmaker.

“It’s a huge problem in every respect,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. “It’s a terrible way to legislate and a terrible way to make decisions about taxpayer dollars.”

But that’s how the Joint Finance Committee has worked for at least two decades, under both Democrats and Republicans. Heck and others say the practice has gotten worse in recent years, as legislative power has been concentrated and politics become more polarized.

Unlike most bills, the $70 billion state budget is typically changed only by the small group of lawmakers who serve on the Joint Finance Committee. Successful floor amendments are possible, but rare. Usually, other lawmakers must go through a committee member, and those changes often get pulled together in an amendment like Motion 999. 

“This 999 motion is something we found out about at 1:30 in the morning and we had to vote on it at 5:30 or something,” said Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, a member of the finance committee.

Grothman groused that he wasn’t involved in the discussions that led to Motion 999. If he were, he would have fought for an even greater private school tuition tax break, which he thinks was inspired by earlier legislation he drafted.

“It’s a pretty closed process,” Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said of the way the finance committee writes the budget. “Most other states don’t do it the way we do it.”

Neither Darling, of River Falls, nor Nygren, of Marinette, returned calls to discuss the process. But committee member Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, defended it, somewhat. She said most of budget provisions can be traced to a previously introduced bill or policy statements made by a lawmaker.

Moreover, the final votes on the budget are a matter of public record.

“At the point you vote for it or against it you’re taking ownership,” Harsdorf said. “It’s not as important to me who introduced it as to whether I support it or oppose.”

But Harsdorf agrees it’s sometimes “hard to trace” where a particular budget amendment added by the Joint Finance Committee leaders comes from.

“Sometimes we don’t know, either,” she said.

And that should bother everyone — from open government advocates to the lawmakers themselves.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Mark Pitsch, a council member, is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.