Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Walker’s Christmas Tree Budget

The budget has a flock of non-financial items -- 58 in all -- that will quietly change state polices.

Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.

Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-17 state budget bill brims with the sort of “big, bold ideas” the likely presidential candidate says his Republican Party needs to embrace. Most of these, like cutting $300 million over two years from the University of Wisconsin System, are fundamentally fiscal in nature.

That makes sense, given that this is, after all, a budget bill.

But some of Walker’s proposals appear to be policy changes with little or no fiscal impact. Wisconsin governors and lawmakers from both parties have often injected these into the budget.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan service agency, identified 58 items in Walker’s previous budget, in 2013-15, it deemed “primarily of a non-fiscal policy nature.” Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang says an accounting of non-fiscal items in Walker’s new budget is now being prepared.

As a candidate for governor in 2010, Walker made an unequivocal pledge to “strip policy and pork projects from the state budget.” Pork refers to expenditures or breaks with specific beneficiaries, a category the Fiscal Bureau also tracks. Soon after Walker submitted his first budget, in 2011, the truth-testers at PolitiFact Wisconsin pronounced his promise “broken.”

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick sidestepped a question about non-fiscal items, instead making a general statement that the budget “is focused on providing better services at a better price to our citizens by streamlining government to make it more efficient, more effective, and more accountable.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, says that because the biennial budget is the only bill the Legislature is required to pass, it tends to get “decorated up as a Christmas tree with everybody hanging ornaments on there.” She labels some of these a “sneak attack” to advance measures that should be vetted more openly.

Among the non-fiscal items flagged by Shilling and her staff are proposals to:

  • Change school report cards and testing.
  • Shift responsibility for property tax assessments from municipalities to counties.
  • Eliminate the rule- and policy-making powers of the state Natural Resources Board and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Board, turning both into advisory councils.
  • Remove lawmakers — who provide what Shilling calls “taxpayer oversight from elected officials” — from the board of the state’s job creation agency, leaving only members of the private sector.
  • Require that all requests by county district attorneys for the appointment of special prosecutors be approved by the state Department of Justice.

“Many of these things are very contentious,” Shilling notes. One non-fiscal budget item — to strip language about “public service” and “the search for truth” from the UW’s mission statement — created such an uproar that the governor backed down, saying it was all a big mistake.

Walker also wants to create a new oversight board for charter schools, affirm that no school district must adopt Common Core educational standards, and bar the use of a national assessment test associated with these standards.

His budget would merge state agencies and create new divisions within existing ones. It would pry control of the worker’s compensation program from one agency and give it to two others.

To “decrease the regulatory and fiscal burden” on private, for-profit colleges, which have come under attack for hyped promises and poor graduation rates, Walker calls for eliminating the state board charged with overseeing them.

And Walker would shut down public access to records of university research, unless it is published or patented. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who famously wise-cracked that he didn’t favor university research into “ancient mating habits of whatever,” could then be told that evidence of such research is none of his business.

Finally, the budget includes Walker’s call to drug test people receiving unemployment insurance and other assistance benefits. Critics say requiring people who are down on their luck to pee into cups will cost millions of dollars.

So perhaps that one belongs in the budget, after all.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

10 thoughts on “Walker’s Christmas Tree Budget”

  1. Rich says:


    What does “weighted performance scores to account for student poverty rates and the length of time a student has been educated in the school system” even mean? What are they trying to achieve?

    Doesn’t that distort the measure of success for the poorest performers? “It’s OK Johnny, we know you would have done well in math if you weren’t poor, so here’s an A for effort!”

    I also enjoyed how they think separating things into different sentences tries to gloss over the policy statements:
    first, you have the choice:
    The Governor recommends that school districts can choose which assessments are administered.
    later, except if your choice is this one:
    The Governor recommends that the Superintendent be barred from administering the the SMARTER Balanced Assessment or from participating in the Consortium.

  2. AG says:

    NOT A FAN of any plan that tries to weight performance based on economic standing of the students.

  3. George C says:

    I like the one about special prosecutors having to be approved by the state DOJ. Planning for another ethics investigation already are we Scotty?

  4. David C says:

    Probably all right out of the corporate ALEC playbook for fascist Republicans. Walker and Republicans cannot be trusted with anything as they continue to pummel Wisconsin citizens with these extremist fascist policies. Walker is a proven liar and corrupt self-serving politician that lies more than 75% of the time according to Politifact,

    Wisconsin will continue the downward trajectory it is on while these people loot from taxpayers.

    I am repulsed that I have to send a dime in taxes to these scum politicians.

  5. PMD says:

    Do a shot every time David C. mentions ALEC or fascist Republicans in a one week period. You’re dead in 2 hours.

  6. AG says:

    My newest “who would I love to put in a small room together” is David C and WCD. I think we could charge tickets to that event.

  7. PMD says:

    I’d pay to see that. Gladly. It could be similar to that weird reality show I saw a preview for that stranded a Dem and Rep on an island together (or something like that).

  8. Rich says:

    A dem and a rep on an island — free from a caucus, separated from their like-minded ilk blindly pushing an ideology, unreachable by lobbyists, etc — might actually accomplish something by rationally discussing the issues. Aw, shucks, I’m dreaming again..the stronger one will probably just kill and eat the other one.

  9. David C says:

    Many people in our community have no idea what ALEC is and how the laws Walker uses were written by corporations for their benefit. I do not see how any of these are real conservative measures. They are extremists policies and a version of 21st century fascism.

    Citizens have no real control of government. Many of our politicians are bought off and do the bidding of their benefactors. Two thirds of their time is spent begging for money, all at our expense and paid for by us in taxes for their salaries. Politicians like Walker are dangerous, erode freedom and rights, and are the enemy of democracy and citizens that expect honest, trustworthy, decent, efficient, government. Walker and his cronies are the polar opposite.

    I am retired and while I hope for better days, that may not be possible in my remaining years on this earth with all the crooked, “idiotes” and fools we have running government.. I do hope for so much better than the likes of Walker, and it is insulting and repulsive to think that media has this crook on a pedestal for a possible presidential run. He has led Wisconsin to worst in class in the Midwest.

    Beatings will continue till morale improves.

  10. AG says:

    “Beatings will continue till morale improves??”

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