Why the GOP Gridlock Over Budget?
Republicans can’t agree on what to do about transportation and the Bucks arena. Expect some secret deals.
The Capitol is deadlocked over the 2015-17 state budget, which hasn’t even gotten through the Joint Finance Committee. Time for a Q and A on what’s going on.
Q. The governor is a Republican. Republicans control both the Assembly and Senate. Why can’t members of the same party agree on a state budget?
A. What about a feud between three branches of the same family is hard to understand?
Gov. Scott Walker wants to borrow $1.3 billion to pay for highway and other transportation programs, and will veto any gas tax or registration fee increase. Assembly Republicans want to borrow $500 million instead, and want the resulting delays in construction projects to hit projects statewide – including Milwaukee’s $1.7-billion Zoo Interchange. Walker and Senate Republicans say legislators shouldn’t tell the state Transportation Department how to delay projects through mid-2017.
Another problem with the Bucks arena funding deal: Two weeks after it was announced, no one in the Capitol has had a chance to actually either read it or see a complete summary of its nuts-and-bolts details.
Q. The current budget ends on June 30. Will state government shut down if there’s no budget by then?
A. No. Unlike the shutdown-prone federal government, Wisconsin state government totters on without a new budget. Spending for all programs just continues at the pre-July 1 pace. Several budgets over the last 20 years have taken until July to pass the Legislature and be signed into law. Not having a budget until July might pinch Walker the most, since news reports say he tentatively hopes to formally announce his campaign for President on July 13.
Q. Are these major, last-minute budget deals being negotiated in public?
A. Oh, no. When legislative leaders are trying to cut deals to line up the minimum number of votes – 17 in the 33-member Senate and 51 in the 99-member Assembly – to pass a budget, these hardball talks can’t be conducted in public. Too messy and complicated.
Whichever party – Republican or Democrat – controls the Legislature sacrifices openness and transparency at this point in budget-making. Instead, leaders cut their last-minute deals in secret, and then make them public in a 300- or 400-page final amendment that comes only hours before the Joint Finance Committee approves them.
Over the next few days, outsiders – including rank-and-file legislators and taxpayers – must rely on public explanations of the deals by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to learn what will soon be voted on.
Q. Wait. Isn’t it illegal to promise to vote for the budget if specific items are in it?
A. There’s a big difference between bribery and logrolling. It’s illegal for any special-interest group to offer to or give cash, a gift or a campaign donation for a legislator’s specific vote. That’s bribing a public official.
But “logrolling” is much different: If I’m a legislator from UpNorth County, and I’ve been able to get my pet local projects into the Joint Finance Committee’s version of the budget, I’m simply representing my district if I vote for a budget that also includes dozens of other changes I wouldn’t support, if I had to vote for them separately.
Q. Why is there so much emphasis on the budget ultimately passed by the Joint Finance Committee, made up of 12 Republicans and four Democrats?
A. Here’s why: If Republican legislative leaders can reach deals on the biggest outstanding issues, and load them into the Finance Committee budget, the entire budget then only needs one up-or-down vote in the full Assembly and Senate to pass. Democrats will argue against it, and offer amendments to change it, but Republican majorities in both houses will kill Democrats’ ideas.
Q. I’ve seen a pamphlet, How A Bill Becomes A Law, in the Capitol. Why aren’t the secret deals and power politics you described in that pamphlet?
A. Maybe H.L. Mencken said it best: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”