Oh, What A Night!Our Summary And Analysis Of The Late Night, Closed Door Budget Votes By Assembly Democrats

Before we begin our analysis of last night’s closed-door activity of the Assembly Democrats (their secret changes to the secret budget deal), let’s remind readers what some of their members have said about transparency in public policy making.

“Now that Democrats are in the majority we have the opportunity to lead in a different and better way–I hope we rise to the challenge. We face the toughest economic climate since the Great Depression, the largest deficit in state history, and the task of sorting out billions of dollars in federal stimulus support. The very least we can do is open all of our debate to public view.” –State Representative Cory Mason

[Rep. Louis] Molepske explained that granting selective access to bill drafts not only denies the public its right to open government, but gives special interests a distinct advantage in passing their legislative proposals, as committee hearings can be held within 24 hours of a bill’s introduction, well before the public even has the opportunity to read, understand and submit testimony on the effects of a bill.

“We should not legislate in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness. To pull a major piece of legislation … in the middle of the night and vote on it without proper debate and public scrutiny reduces public faith in government and makes people question who we are there to represent – the public or the special interests. I will continue to advocate for my bill which would ban these midnight voting practices. I sincerely hope my Republican colleagues, who supported a legislative curfew more than a decade ago, will have the courage to cross party lines and join me in this effort to move Wisconsin’s legislative agenda forward in the light of day.” –State Representative Mark Pocan

Ok, now that we’ve set the stage, let’s look at what happened late last night in closed caucus, behind closed doors, outside of the scrutiny of the press and the public.

We should acknowledge that in some respect, Assembly Democrats did pass some changes that make their version of the secret deal better than the Joint Finance Committee’s version. Notably, they:

  • Deleted changes to Joint and Several liability
  • Made changes to the Autism mandate to make it better, still a new mandate
  • Restored $5.4 million to Department of Justice budget after the JFC went after the Attorney General for partisan reasons
  • Deleted driver licenses changes that would have prevented Judges from suspending an individual’s license
  • Deleted the UW Nursing School enumeration that the UW did not request

There are also areas where their version of the Secret Deal is as bad as or even worse than the Joint Finance’s Committee’s version. The Assembly Democrats:

  • Kept $2.25 billion in increased taxes and fees
  • Retained $1.48 billion in allowable local property tax increases
  • Didn’t nick the $3.31 billion in increased borrowing
  • Left unchanged the JFC’s $2.26 billion structural deficit so the next budget will start even further in the hole
  • Raided $337,800,000 dollars of segregated fees to pay for general programs.
  • Kept JFC’s changes to the prevailing wage law
  • Advocated for the early release of violent felons by gutting Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentence law
  • Gut active GPS monitoring of the worst child sex offenders and replacing it with less effective passive monitoring
  • Mandated state health insurance coverage of boyfriends and girlfriends of state employees.  This mandate could be expanded to local governments, and could initially cost state government $15 million a year
  • Granted collective bargaining rights for UW faculty, academic staff, and research assistants
  • Did not act to restore the QEO leaving local property taxpayers vulnerable
  • Created more RTAs – the Assembly Dems added RTAs for the Fox Valley and the Chippewa Valley.  The Fox Valley Regional Transit Authority was created without having any public or locally-elected body vote on its creation
  • Made no changes to the onerous School Choice provisions that severely harm that program
  • Added several earmarks/pork items to attract enough votes to pass the bill

They use the euphemism “targeted investments” instead of pork.  Someone at the Government Accountability Board may prefer to use the term ‘logrolling,’ but we digress. Here’s the new pork, and who was targeted:

  • $108,000 for Plum Creek Fire Department. Rep. Danou
  • $60,000 GPR each for school districts in Pepin, Plum City and Cochran/Fountain City. Rep. Danou
  • $50,000 for Barron County Restorative Justice. Rep. Hubler
  • Keep state patrol HQ in Spooner open. Rep. Hubler
  • Study a Waterloo stop in the DOT high speed rail plan. Rep. Jorgensen
  • Lake improvement study for Lake Koshkonong. Rep. Jorgensen
  • $400,000 for 80% of project costs for transit infrastructure improvements on County Highway B. Rep. Milroy
  • Authorize UW-Stevens Point to plan a BS degree in nursing. Rep Molepske
  • Provide $175,000 to Town of Stockton for transit infrastructure improvements on Old Highway 18. Rep. Molepske
  • Remove Tomah trooper station from closure list and consolidate with the Tomah DNR ranger station. Rep. Radcliffe
  • $300,000 for environmental cleanup efforts in Adams County. Rep. Schneider
  • Incubator project to create jobs and grow bio-tech economy -$750,000 in the next Budget. Rep. Steinbrink
  • Provide $500,000 for transit infrastructure improvements in Sheboygan County. Rep. Van Akkeren

Great. A ‘high speed’ rail train From Milwaukee to Madison will have slow down and stop in Waterloo where no one will disembark and only Rep. Jorgenson will get on a few days a year. Anyway…

At first blush, last night seems to be a stunning rebuke of Representative Pocan, the liberal Madison legislator who, as Joint Finance co-Chair, was the Assembly Democrat’s chief negotiator on the budget. A lot of secret side deals he cut behind closed doors were rejected when his full caucus had a chance to also vote in secret. It would also appear that the “winners” from last night’s late-night closed door activities would include those who have publicly lobbied hard against:

  • The liability law changes
  • The legally-dubious Oil Franchise Fee’s no-pass through provision
  • The devastating and capricious cuts to the Department of Justice budget

But, and this is a huge but here folks, don’t count the Assembly’s secret deals as victories yet.

The Assembly leaders are NOT working on a final Budget deal. They are merely working to obtain 50 votes to advance a version of the current deal out of their house and onto the Senate.  Any disagreements between the Assembly’s behind closed doors, secret deal and the Senate’s will be hashed out through a Conference Committee, the results of which cannot be amended, merely approved or voted down as a package.

Most or all of the “victories” from last night could easily be set aside by a new secret deal negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker and Finance co-Chair Pocan.

But, we’ll acknowledge progress when we see it. Well, when the Assembly leaders allow us to see it after they finally get around to briefing the public and the press about their dark of night, bar-time, behind closed doors activities, at least.

The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the Budget today. (In daylight even!) They will go to the floor and begin debates on amendments when they have the 50 votes needed to pass this onto the Senate.

Stay tuned.