My wife and I used to have a great family dog. He was loving, loyal, and always happy to see me when I came home from work. However, on the rare occasion, he would sneak into the basement and have an “accident.” When he did so, he would run and hide behind the couch, knowing how little his rectal gift would be appreciated.
Eerily, my dog’s behavior mirrors the Wisconsin State Legislature’s attempts to pass a budget repair bill to fill in a $652 million hole this biennium. Put simply, the Legislature is pooping in our basement, and looking for a couch to hide behind.
In fact, the Assembly and Senate are so desperate to befoul our state’s finances without anyone noticing, they are willing to break the law to do so. Both houses have passed competing versions of budget adjustment bills without either house sending it to the Joint Finance Committee, where any appropriation bill legally has to go. According to the Wisconsin law:
“All bills introduced in either house of the legislature for the appropriation of money, providing for revenue or relating to taxation shall be referred to the joint committee on finance before being passed.”
Now, it may seem that whether or not a bill goes to the Joint Finance Committee is an arcane procedural technicality, obsessed over by only the most dedicated Capitol coneheads. But, in fact, the Joint Finance Committee exists specifically to remedy these types of funding emergencies, by putting the brakes on the process. The committee, which consists of members of both parties from both houses, forces the adults to the table to negotiate and doesn’t let them leave until they have a deal. (An excellent history and justification for the committee can be read here.)
When the Democrat-controlled Senate introduced their budget “repair” bill, they sent it to the “Senate Finance” committee. The Senate’s bill relies heavily on a new $400 million hospital tax, which they somehow believe will make health care less expensive. Then again, this is the same group that thought higher gas taxes would make gas cheaper, so we clearly shouldn’t expect much to begin with.
This hypothetical committee consisted of six Democrats and two Republicans – the Senate half of the Joint Committee. Naturally, the faux-Senate committee passed the bill before it was sent to the floor and passed by the full Senate. Needless to say, the “Senate Finance” committee is not the “Joint Finance” committee, where the bill legally had to go. Cutting the Assembly Republicans out of the equation allowed Democrats to whisk their bill through without any meaningful scrutiny.
Ironically, this tactic was first used in 2000, when now-disgraced Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala introduced his “mini budget,” which contained a laundry list of left-wing giveaways. It is believed that Chvala’s bill was both the first and last time this illegal procedural maneuver was used. Coincidentally, this gimmick was revived this year by long time Chvala ally Russ Decker, who now serves as Senate Majority Leader.
Even worse, the Assembly passed their budget repair version without ever sniffing the finance committee. Assembly Republicans merely yanked their bill to the floor and voted on it, hoping the whole mess would just go away. Their bill, which relied heavily on budgeting smoke and mirrors, actually increases the state’s structural deficit by $753 million. In effect, they “solve” the budget problem by giving us more of the same nonsense that got us in this fix in the first place. This is like curing an alcoholic by giving him enough Jim Beam to make him forget he’s a drunk.
In both cases, circumventing the legally mandated procedure allowed legislators to get out of town before anyone actually started to pay attention to what was in their equally-putrid bills. One capitol staffer told me that skipping Joint Finance is akin to a speeding ticket – yet when I speed, it doesn’t cost taxpayers $652 million.
Rather than using the budget shortfall as an opportunity to correct permanent flaws in the way Wisconsin spends money, our lawmakers are more comfortable high-tailing it for the hills. Most likely, they’ll sneak through their final agreement on the first day of warm weather, when reporters are busy investigating why people like to have picnics. But for now, lawmakers are intent on avoiding negative press and getting back to their districts to start running their campaigns. Take a look – you’ll find them hiding behind your couch.
-March 27, 2008