Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

We Get the Reporting We Deserve

\”If you don\’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.\”

-Mark Twain

The press has been going on and on about how much damage Wisconsin\’s late budget will do on the state.  In fact, the greatest damage a late budget does is inflict more and more bad reporting on our citizens.

Yesterday, a local Madison television station aired a report on the late nature of state budget negotiations.  The Wisconsin budget is now 93 days past due, although spending continues as it would under the previous budget.  The reporter noted that other states have measures in place to punish lawmakers who drag their feet in the budget writing process.

She then turned to \”nonpartisan\” media Golden Boy Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to explain why the budget is so late in coming:

McCabe said that lawmakers\’ fundraising is also partially to blame.

\”I think the most powerful thing that we could do is ban campaign fundraising during the budget process because I guarantee you, if they couldn\’t raise campaign money right now, they\’d have a budget done,\” said McCabe.

The fundraising-during-the-budget angle has been a common theme among media outlets during the budget process.  It is also the most ridiculous explanation for the late budget.  Yet no member of the media – not one – apparently is willing to debunk this obnoxious boiler-plate argument.

First of all, there isn\’t going to be any downside from the late budget.  I know it sounds crazy – but the last thing you\’re going to hear from any media outlet is \”the budget is late, but continuing ongoing funding will mitigate the impact over the next two years, so there will be little effect on taxpayers.\”  Instead, they need to convince you that you should flee your house immediately, as the late nature of the budget will cause your roof to cave in within the next 15 minutes.

The fundraising argument also allows news outlets to avoid actually having to do real reporting on the issues within the budget.  If it\’s all a matter of corruption, why even bother reporting on actual funding and the efficacy of state programs?  That takes time and research.

In fact, the reason the budget is late is primarily because Senate Democrats took one day to inject the budget with a $15.2 billion universal health care plan, then refused to move off their position.  There was no way the budget ever had a chance of passing with that monstrous tax increase in it.  Even Governor Doyle opposed it.  There were clearly other positions taken by Republicans that were untenable to Democrats.  That\’s negotiation with a divided legislature.

Let\’s take a look back at the last couple of budgets when the legislature was divided between Republicans and Democrats.  The modern tactic of holding fast on your position seems to have been born in the 1997-99 budget, which didn\’t see final passage until September 29th.  The next budget featured an epic staredown between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala and Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen.  A final vote took place on October 6th – but even then, the budget work wasn\’t done.  A trailer bill authorizing a large sales tax rebate to taxpayers was passed on November 11th of 1999.

In 2001, the budget passed fairly quickly, as it contained something for everyone – including the new $50 million Seniorcare program, and $500 million in increased school aids.  The budget passed on July 26th – nearly a month behind deadline, but rather quickly when compared to the previous two budgets.

In 2002, control of the Senate flipped to the Republicans.  While budget fights weren\’t always smooth, the houses got together and passed the 2003-05 budget on June 20th and the 2005-07 budget on July 5th.  Of course, the Senate went back to the Democrats in 2006, which leaves us at the current budget impasse.

A couple of points here: Exactly what happened when budgets were being passed in late September, October, and even November in the \’90s?  Nothing.  Nobody\’s still talking about the horrors of 1999, when bridges started falling apart (as Governor Doyle has recently threatened will happen, in a stunningly crass talking point).  Mike Huebsch and Judy Robson both know nothing will happen, so they continue to hold out.  When the budget is done, it\’ll be time to watch the Packers play the Lions on Thanksgiving, and nobody will even remember what happened.

Secondly, this seems to be irrefutable proof that late budgets are caused by split parties, not by some kind of inherent corruption within the system.  If holding the budget over the heads of prospective donors worked, why did the Republicans pass budgets so quickly in 2003 and 2005?  Couldn\’t they have soaked their donors for a little more by dragging the budget on for a lot longer?  In 2001, you don\’t think Chuck Chvala and Scott Jensen could have prolonged the budget process to extract more cash?  Is it even possible they were actually able to compromise on issues in that instance?

Furthermore, what would a ban on fundraising during the budget even do?  As far as I can tell, lobbyists have Blackberry PDAs.  Those phones have calendars on them.  If you take the good government groups at their word and accept that legislators are trading laws for cash, how hard would it be to circumvent this prohibition?  It would only take the following utterance: \”Thanks, Senator for that piece of special interest legislation.  I will now go light up my cigar with a hundred dollar bill and program a reminder into my Blackberry to give you a wheelbarrow of cash as soon as the budget is passed.\”  And there you have it – prohibition evaded.

In fact, the most galling part of the entire charade comes back to McCabe himself.  For years, McCabe has decried the influence of special interests on the legislative process.  During the budget, he has traveled the state at trumped-up \”public hearings\” to push for the universal health care plan in the Senate Democrats\’ budget.  In fact, these hearings were sponsored by a group that may have broken the law in coordinating their advocacy with state lawmakers.  Then he has the nerve to suggest that the budget was being held up by corruption?  When his special interest (which doesn\’t disclose its donors) was out pushing for the single biggest item holding up the whole budget process?  And he\’s complaining about the influence of special interests in delaying the budget? It\’s beyond preposterous.

And yet the poor Channel 3 reporter simply had no clue.  People tell her stuff and she puts it on the air.  Reporters (especially the television variety) aren\’t paid much, and frequently change stations.  Their expertise tends to be in reporting, not in understanding how the state budget works or who the biggest hypocrites in the state might be.

I hate to pick on this one reporter, as she seems like a very nice woman.  But her ridiculous report mirrors those across the state during the budget, from people who should know better.  Mike McCabe tells her some stuff, and she puts it on the air, unquestioned.  Jim Doyle says Seniorcare won\’t be able to fund prescription drugs for seniors, and she reports it as fact.  Except it\’s not even close to being right. 

Seniorcare has a base budget of $155 million, which it will continue to receive until a new budget is passed.  While the new budget may have an increase in it, $155 million should be enough to tide the program over until new funding is decided within the next couple of weeks.  Not a single single senior will lose a cent of their benefits.  But you may have noticed that Governor Doyle didn\’t say something like \”single mothers won\’t be able to get their child support checks,\” since the severity of the imaginary tragedy is directly proportial to the likelihood of the aggrieved party to vote.

As was the case in 1999, this imaginary budget \”crisis\” will be forgotten within weeks.  But the shoddy reporting will remain, ready to misinform you about the next big legislative issue facing the state.

5 Comments

  1. The problem with McCabe is that he has conditioned the press. For example:

    Scenario 1: The budget passes on July 1, 20XX. Mike McCabe says, “The reason the budget passed so quickly was because legislators promised the special interests that they could get their special projects/perks before summer was over.”

    Scenario 2: The budget passed on December 1, 20XX. Mike McCabe says, “The reason the budget took so long to pass was because the special interests – like my donors – wanted sweethears deals and contracts with government…”

    Not entirely dissimilar to global warming alarmists (rising temps are proof of global warming, as are dropping temps).

  2. Hear, hear, hear, hear, hear. And school scare tactics are just as preposterous and maddening. Grrrr. (FoxPolitic’s piece on Ms. Burmaster et al – http://www.foxpolitics.net/politics.iml?mdl=issues.mdl&issue_id=9117&Category=1.) And Ellis, Kaufert and Cowles called Doyle on his Senior Care scare. Grrr again – and good for them.

  3. But wouldn’t it be nice to see a reporter commit a flagrant act of journalism and actually investigate this stuff? They don’t need to be an expert in the state budget process, but they can talk to people who are.

  4. Christian, there actually are major revenue impacts from a budget that is passed late. Whenever a new fee, tax or other revenue increase is passed, there has to be an assumed date when colletion begins. Most agencies are never naive enough to assume a revenue increase would ever go into effect on July 1, but what if one had tried to safely assume an implementation date of October 1? Instead of 9 months of the new revenue stream for the fiscal year, there will be 8, 7, 6 or fewer months worth of revenue. This means less overall revenue collected for the fiscal year when the budget may have assumed a larger amount. You can’t collect most tax or fee increases retroactively. If I bought my fishing license today, I pay today’s fee, not the fee that DNR might have assumed they could collect by now (just an example – don’t even know if fishing fees are proposed to increase).

    There is also the thorny problem when certain fee increases are tied to deadlines outside of the state budget. An example would be the driver license fee increase to finance changes to meet the federal requirements of REAL ID. The federal deadlines to implement the REAL ID program are completely independent of when the state budget gets passed. The transportation budget could lose a good deal of the revenue it would have used to implement the changes to meet the federal deadline if the fee increase is delayed.

  5. We don’t get the reporting we deserve, but politicians these days most certainly get better reporting than they deserve.

    With more hidden agendas floating around the Capitol than at the Palace of Versailles in the 18th Century, reporters can’t know who to believe.

    The only course of action they can take is to follow the money. I was the reporter (now recovering journalist) who did some of the first computer-assisted campaign finance stories in Wisconsin. I poured Tommy Thompson’s data into a computer, and some pretty interesting stuff came out. I learned more about Tommy Thompson in that exercise than I would have if I’d read a million press releases or covered a million press conferences.

    I’ve been there and done that too. Or at least, looking back, it seems like it was a million press releases and press conferences.

    The citizens of Wisconsin owe Mike McCabe a tremendous debt of gratitude for putting the facts at our disposal. I was combing through the data just today.

    And if you don’t think the facts in the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s database help explain the state budget impasse, the roadbuilders and I have a handsome bridge to sell you.

    Rich Eggleston

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