Public notice language removed from budget

Provision is among 83 non-fiscal items removed from governor's fiscal plan

By Richard Moore, The Lakeland Times

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee has removed from the state budget it is considering a controversial item eliminating the obligation of state and local governments to publish various public notices in newspapers.

The committee also removed a provision that would have removed the requirement for the public notice of timber sales.

Beth Bennett, the executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the industry owed many members of the Legislature a big thanks for their efforts to protect and preserve public-notice requirements in Wisconsin newspapers. She also said the industry owed the public a round of applause, too.

"Our readers should also be thanked for the hundreds of calls that were placed into legislative offices over the past several weeks - reader support made a big impact on the success of our effort to preserve public notice," Bennett wrote in a memo to WNA members.

The provisions were among 83 non-fiscal items identified by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau in the governor's proposed 2017-19 budget and removed from consideration by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), the co-chairpersons of the Joint Finance Committee.

"Accordingly, they will be drafted as individual bills for introduction into the Legislature," Nygren and Darling wrote in a memo to JFC members.

That, of course, means the Legislature could still pass those bills later in the session, but they would have to stand and survive on their own policy merits rather than as part of a broader budget bill many legislators might support overall despite being opposed to the specific provisions.

According to Nygren and Darling, the committee will use as its starting point the governor's recommendations minus the 83 non-fiscal items. The committee will also exclude the governor's transportation budget.

"Thus the committee will vote to amend the governor's bill," they wrote. "A proposed change to the bill will require a majority vote."

For the DOT budget, the lawmakers wrote, the committee will entertain motions to amend the adjusted base of the budget, rather than the recommendations of the governor.

"Although the governor's recommendations will be before the committee, it will take a majority vote for them (or any proposal related to transportation) to be adopted," they wrote.

Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), a long-time opponent of including non-fiscal policy items in the budget, praised the removal of the items.

"I strongly applaud the move made by the Joint Finance Committee chairs to remove all of the non-fiscal policy items from the state budget," Cowles said. "I have long been an opponent of non-fiscal policy items in the state budget. I have said, for several budgets, that these items should all be stripped out and discussed through the committee process with public input, as separate legislation. I commend my colleagues on the finance committee for this move and I too, wholeheartedly, agree that the state budget is no place for policy items. I look ahead to working with my colleagues on a much cleaner budget."

Democrats on the budget-writing committee applauded the move as well, observing that other items kicked out of the budget include unfunded mandates on the UW, including new degree and transfer requirements, faculty workload policies, and a student allocable segregated fee opt-out provision; repeal of the prevailing wage and project labor agreements; creation of an Occupational License Review Council and the elimination of certain state boards and councils; and a study on the transfer of CAFO oversight from the DNR to DATCP.

"As members of the budget committee, we've heard from people across Wisconsin who have concerns about the drastic licensing changes, repeal of important worker protections, and unfunded mandates on our schools and universities in the budget," Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) said. "Never underestimate the power of people's voices - I encourage everyone to keep the pressure up."

Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) said Walker has lots of friends in the Legislature and should work non-budget items through the Legislature in the correct way, with public input and vetting in committee in stand-alone legislation.

"I am glad the co-chairs are responding to pressure to remove many policy items - it is the right thing to do," Erpenbach said.

With the non-fiscal policy items out, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said she was shifting her concern to the transportation fund.

"I worry that Republicans plan to balance the transportation fund on the backs of our children's school funding increase," she said.

Public notice requirements

The governor's public notice provisions would have allowed all governmental units with printing, publishing, and mailing requirements the option to make most materials available electronically. Election documents and legal notices would have been excluded.

"The governor also recommends giving the Department of Administration secretary the authority to waive particular printing, publishing and mailing requirements for state agencies in part or in whole or to waive electronic distribution," the DOA budget summary stated.

In general, the budget bill provided that a statute requiring a governmental body to publish a document must be construed to allow that body to publish it electronically on its Internet site; and that interpretation would have been allowed even if the statute required publication in a newspaper in a specified location.

In addition, if a statute required publication both on the Internet and in another form, the budget bill required the statute to be construed as allowing publication only on the government's website.

This bill also allowed the secretary of administration to waive in whole or in part any statutory requirement for an executive branch agency to mail, print, or publish any nonexempt document, but that waiver power was deleted from the budget, too.

While the governor's proposal excluded certain legal and election notices, the impacts on transparency could have been far-reaching, especially given the new waiver power the DOA would have had.

This bill also provided that the requirement that the sale of timber cut from a state, county, or community forest be advertised in a local newspaper could have been satisfied by posting notice on certain official Internet sites.

The governor's proposal came after a legislative study committee last year concluded that such sweeping changes were at least premature.