The Quick-Law Governor
Countless sweeping changes have been proposed almost overnight, with no study, no rationale and no known author.
Wisconsin has long been a pioneer in research-based legislation. In 1901, the state created the nation’s first Legislative Reference Bureau, the nonpartisan agency which drafts laws and researches their history, and within 20 years, nearly every other state had followed suit. The Congressional Research Service in the U.S. Capitol was also modeled on Wisconsin’s bureau.
Wisconsin was one of the first states to attach a fiscal note (beginning in 1953) to all legislation and its Legislative Council (created in 1947) and Legislative Fiscal Bureau (1967), two more nonpartisan agencies providing intellectual support for the legislature, have also influenced other states.
This history was intertwined with the “Wisconsin Idea,” the idea that university scholars might provide research and insight to help guide state government. As presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once declared, the Wisconsin Idea “meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find.”
When the administration of Gov. Scott Walker proposed eliminating language from the state statutes which created the “Wisconsin Idea,” it was a direct attack on this heritage. Yet we have no idea who hatched this proposal or what its rationale was. It was slipped into the massive budget bill and once it was discovered, Walker claimed it was a “drafting error,” which the Journal Sentinel’s Politifact column labeled a “pants-on-fire” lie.
The idea of creating a new UW System Authority is a revolutionary change for the state. It may well be a good one. But it is, once again, an idea slipped into the budget based on no prior study, with no apparent author and little rationale. UW Regent David Walsh called the proposal “fairy dust,” with too many unknowns and unanswered questions. “Until all these questions are answered we shouldn’t support a public authority,” he told his fellow regents.
As Walsh noted, the creation of the UW System, which merged all the state’s public universities into one system, took three years under Gov. Patrick Lucey. It generated all kinds of discussion from all stakeholders, as should this proposal. That’s what the Legislative Council is for; there is long history of legislation created that was first studied by this council, with the participation of legislators from both parties and representatives from the private and public sectors knowledgable about the pertinent issues.
Walker’s main goal here (which can only be guessed given how little he has said) it to cut state funding for the UW System. But are there other ways to accomplish this? Does it make sense, for instance, that the system has three four-year colleges, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls, all clustered together within an hour’s drive or less of Minneapolis? This is a massive system with 13 four-year colleges, 14 two-year colleges and countless interconnected parts. The notion that you can rationally reshape the entire system with a few passages in a budget bill is, frankly, bonkers.
Or consider another Walker proposal: “Tucked into… the proposed budget is a massive overhaul of the system that provides long-term care to more than 50,000 elderly or disabled people in Wisconsin,” as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Guy Boulton has written. The proposal would create a new model “in which the state would contract with large insurance companies to manage both long-term care and medical care,” he reports.
Once again, there way be merit to the idea, but the author and rationale behind this radical change is less than clear. Kitty Rhoades, the secretary of the Department of Health Services, told the JS the idea had gotten discussion over the years, but admitted she learned of the proposal only when the governor’s budget was released.
“No one had any inkling this was happening,” complained Michael Blumenfeld of the Wisconsin Family Care Association, which will be affected by the changes. “We are just scratching our heads,” he told Boulton. Why would you do this?”
Or consider Walker’s proposals for the state Department of Natural Resources. The biggest change, again an item in the budget and again a complete surprise to the head of this department, Cathy Stepp, would strip the power of the board members who have overseen DNR since the 1920s. The Wisconsin Conservation Commission was a Republican creation, influenced by the ideas of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold (another case of Wisconsin influencing the nation), which eventually became the DNR and has had a governor-appointed board overseeing it for nearly a century, with longtime bipartisan support.
There isn’t space to describe all the changes tossed into this budget bill, including ending all funding for the bipartisan Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund, the decimation of the DNR’s scientific staff, reducing the power of the state Building Commission and changes to make the state civil service system less independent and give Walker more power over it.
For all the complaints about the Right-to-Work law, it was at least passed as a separate bill that allowed bipartisan debate on its merits. By contrast, the long list of changes in Walker’s budget bill are meant to get as little discussion as possible, which is why they aren’t proposed in separate bills.
I should note that there have always been policy items tucked into the budget bill and midnight amendments with no one’s fingerprints on them. The sausage making in the state Capitol has always been messier than Adlai Stevenson might have liked. But the number and sweeping impact and barely-explained rationale of Walker’s policy changes make them, in their totality, unprecedented.
The aversion to expertise and well-studied policy decisions that characterizes this administration was suggested by Walker’s decision to turn down the proposed Kenosha Casino. The governor justified this by arguing the state could be successfully sued by the Potowatomi if he agreed to this new casino. This contradicted what the lawyer hired by the state concluded, but Walker referred to a memo by then-Secretary of the Department of Administration, Mike Huebsch, to justify his decision. So we had two non-lawyers and college dropouts, Walker and Huebsch, giving us their legal opinion as a justification for his decision.
I guess it could have been worse. At least Walker offered some explanation, however thin, for his decision.