As the JFC goes to vote today, here’s my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week.
After months of public hearings and discussion, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is set to take their first votes on the state’s biennial budget this week. The budget is the single most important piece of legislation that state politicians pass. This is also the state budget that precedes the next election for governor and will set the tone for that race.
The budget process is always fraught with emotion and heated rhetoric. It should be. Wisconsinites work hard for their money and politicians should not be cavalier about seizing and spending it. It is going to be a raucous couple of months in state politics.
Wisconsin’s budget process typically begins with the governor soliciting proposals from state agencies and submitting a budget. From there, the JFC, composed of members from both parties from both houses of the Legislature, whittles down the budget to a version that is sent to each house of the Legislature. Once the Assembly and the Senate debate, amend, and pass an identical version, the budget is sent to the governor for signature. Wisconsin’s governors have the most powerful veto power in the nation and often carve up the budget with selective vetoes. Finally, the Legislature will vote to override, or not, selective vetoes and the budget becomes law. When Governor Tony Evers gave the Legislature his proposed budget in February, it was riddled with hundreds of policy items from legalizing marijuana to expanding Medicaid. Democrats and Republicans like to add policy items to the budget because the budget is the only piece of legislation that must be passed. By adding in pet policy goals, politicians can use the budget as a bargaining chip to get their pet policies into law.
The first vote by the JFC will be to strip the budget of nonbudgetary policy items. This is an important first step and the Republicans must be thorough in purging policy items from the budget. While it might be tempting to add Republican policy ideas as bargaining chips, Republicans must keep the budget language to the bare minimum necessary to fund state government. Evers has proven untrustworthy in negotiations and any unnecessary words in the budget bill could turned against them with his veto pen. The Republicans must minimize that risk.
As the JFC moves to the next step of setting budget priorities, they should wait until the governor decides where to spend the windfall from the federal government. Governor Evers is deciding where to spend billions of dollars from the COVID-19 federal spending spree on top of the billions that local and state governments have already received. Once all of the federal taxpayer money is allocated, state lawmakers will have a better idea of where to allocate state taxpayer money.
This is a unique opportunity for the legislature to offset state spending with federal dollars. For example, the most recent federal spending bill sends over $25 million to Wauwatosa, $405 million to Milwaukee, and $25 million to Green Bay.
Despite being closed for most of the year, Milwaukee Public Schools received almost $800 million from federal taxpayers. The state government has received $210 million in infrastructure grants. Since all of these government bodies are flush with federal taxpayer cash, state lawmakers should reduce the amount that state taxpayers fund them by comparable amounts.
With so much federal tax money flowing into local and state governments, state lawmakers could save state taxpayers billions of dollars and send them money back to them in the form of substantial tax relief. In effect, state lawmakers could leverage the federal windfall for economic stimulus through meaningful tax cuts. Meanwhile, all state and local government priorities are completely funded.
Republicans have an opportunity to pass a budget that will make a meaningful difference in the bank accounts of taxpayers and business owners throughout the state. Meanwhile, they will define Republican priorities as voters begin to think about who will lead the state in 2023 and beyond. The incredible increase in federal spending is foolish and destructive to our nation, but at least state lawmakers can salvage something good out of it.