My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:
With all of the news emanating from Madison about the wrangling over the state budget and the Foxconn incentive package, one could be excused for missing the fact that the legislature passed, and Governor Walker signed into law, one of the most significant government reforms since ACT 10. The Wisconsin REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act is a significant reform for preventing the inexorable bloating of government.
When we all learned about government in Civics 101 — or from Schoolhouse Rock — the process seems fairly simple. The legislature passes a bill and then the executive signs it into law. But that is only part of the process. Laws, as written, are usually written rather broadly. It is then up to the bureaucracy in the Executive branch to take that law and put it into action. They do this by interpreting the law and creating all of the detailed rules and regulations to promulgate and enforce it. It is the necessary and proper role of the bureaucracy.
Throughout the decades, however, as the size and scope of government has grown, so has the bureaucracy and its power. Too many unelected bureaucrats deep in the bowels of state government have taken it upon themselves to use their regulatory latitude to advance their own agendas. Protected as civil servants and relaxed in the knowledge that elected officials come and go as the bureaucracy remains, these bureaucrats passed massive and costly regulations with barely a hint of legal authority to do so.
When the Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker swept into power in 2010, one of the first reforms they made was to restrict the power of the bureaucracy with 2011’s Act 21. This law narrowed the rule making authority of state agencies and injected some more oversight by the governor and the Legislature into the rule-making process. It also importantly allowed state rules to be challenged in any of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — not just liberal Dane County.
The REINS Act is the next advance in moving power away from the bureaucracy and into the hands of elected officials. The REINS Act accomplishes three major reforms.
First, the REINS Act increases public input into any proposed rule. The law now requires that an agency get affirmative approval from the governor of a scope statement describing the statutory authority for the rule and the impact of the proposed rule on people. After approval, either chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) may require that the agency open a comment period and hold a public hearing. All public input must then be included in the published rule analysis.
Second, the REINS Act puts up an additional barrier if a proposed rule will cost more than $10 million for people to comply with it. Under the new law, if a proposed rule is projected to cost businesses, local governments, and individuals more than $10 million during a two-year period in compliance costs, then the agency must halt all work on the rule. The only ways for the new rule to then proceed is for the legislature to enact a bill specifically authorizing the rule or for the rule to be rewritten to bring the compliance costs below $10 million.
Third, the REINS Act authorizes the JCRAR to permanently suspend a proposed rule by majority vote if the committee objects to it for a statutory reason. For example, if the committee decides that the agency lacks statutory authority to create the rule, then the committee can stop them from doing so. Of course, the committee can always be overridden by the full legislature.
The growth of government happens in many ways. Some of it happens through big laws debated and passed by the legislature. But much of it happens deep below the sightline of the public and hidden from scrutiny in the greasy gears of the bureaucracy. The REINS Act goes a long way toward injecting light and accountability into our state government. Congratulations to Gov. Walker and the Legislature for passing this important reform.