Wigderson on Earmarks in State Budget

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

State Senator Rich Zipperer’s committee is again considering his bill to make budget “earmarks” transparent in the state budget process. Zipperer’s bill would not end budget earmarks, but legislators would have to defend the earmarks for their districts in the budget.

Earmarks are budget provisions for a specific beneficiary that would not be generally applicable, whether it’s expenditure or a benefit in the state tax code. Earmarks are often included in government budgets to win the support of legislators for passage of the budget bill.

Zipperer’s bill, SB 114, would end what he called “airdrops.” These are provisions inserted by the conference committee after the budget bill’s passage by the Joint Finance Committee and both houses of the legislature. This would stop last minute deals outside of the public eye. The conference committee would still have the ability to reduce the amount for a particular earmark.

The bill would also change the rules in the Joint Finance Committee regarding earmarks. Instead of requiring a majority to take an earmark provision out, the bill would require a majority vote to keep an earmark in. This would be especially important in those years when control of the legislature is split and there is equal representation of both parties.

The most important part of Zipperer’s bill is a requirement that the legislative fiscal bureau would create an “earmark transparency report.” The report would contain a list of all earmarks in the budget bill and the cost of each earmark. The bill would also identify the beneficiary of each earmark, including the Assembly and Senate District of the earmark beneficiary.

Both parties are guilty of including earmarks in the budget process. Zipperer says that the last state budget was better than most.  “It certainly wasn’t at the level of the previous budget.”

But there were still earmarks. For example, “There was $25,000 for Copper Falls with no explanation.” Zipperer explained, “It was not enough to make me oppose the budget,” but it showed that earmarks continued even under Republican control.

In the last budget under Governor Jim Doyle, perhaps the most infamous example of an earmark was $46,000 for recycling containers for Wrightstown, a town of 2000 people.

Other examples of earmarks in the last budget under Doyle include $5 million for the Bradley Center (part of which was spent on a new scoreboard) and $500,000 for the Oshkosh Opera House.

The argument for earmarks is that it allows the legislature to specify and set priorities for government spending. Zipperer says the higher the level of government, the more potential harm there is for earmarks.  Earmarks distort the real priorities for spending. They also mean that the state is making a spending decision that should have been made locally.

However, “Even if you support earmarks, you can still support this bill,” Zipperer said. After all, the bill does not stop earmarks, it only makes members of the legislature have to defend them.

Earmark transparency has been an interest of Zipperer’s since he was first elected to the Assembly and saw his first budget process. He says what makes this year’s bill more likely to pass than his past attempts is that the bill has been simplified to identifying the earmarks.  That way the legislature and the public will know about them before there is a vote on the budget.

Zipperer also claims bipartisan support for the bill this time. Senator Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill has been through a public hearing and will soon be getting a committee vote. Despite the recalls that threaten to overshadow any work the legislature does, Zipperer is optimistic there will be enough floor time for his bill to pass.

If it passes, voters can expect to hear more about state grants for soybean crushers and climate change classrooms. Not because there are more or less earmarks like them, but because the legislative fiscal bureau will be required to list them before the legislature votes to approve them.