Understanding the State Budget Process


When I first started in the legislature four years ago, someone suggested that I think of the state’s biennial budget as a blueprint for Wisconsin’s future.  This made a lot of sense to me.  In order to understand the budget, people need to know how the process works, who makes decisions and what opportunities the public has for influencing the plans that will be purchased with your tax dollars.


On February 3rd, Governor Walker submitted his "executive budget” as Senate Bill 1.  This is his version of how state government could work over the next two years and beyond.  You may have heard about some of the things he is proposing.  I have concerns about many of his plans, but will talk more about those in future columns. 


Coming in at 1,839 pages, the Governor’s budget is a lengthy and complicated document.  Trying to decipher the bill can be a daunting prospect.  Help is available for those of us who have trouble reading legalese. The Legislature’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau produces detailed summaries of the entire budget, broken down by each state agency.  They are also working on individual papers that discuss in great detail various options that legislators are contemplating for each program. All of these publications will be posted on the Fiscal Bureau’s website as soon as they are completed. You can find them at:



The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which is made up of 8 Senators and 8 Representatives, is responsible for holding public hearings on the executive budget throughout the State.  The idea is to hear from the public before any amendments are offered or any votes are taken.  In the past 25 years there have been as many as 21 Joint Finance Committee hearings on the budget bill and as few as six. This year’s schedule is still being worked out.  I will post it on my website once it is finalized: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/25/bewley


I realize that most of my constituents will not be able to make it to any of these hearings.  To give you a voice in this process, I will hold listening sessions here in the 25th Senate District. The dates, times and locations for those sessions will also be available on my website.  After meeting with you, I will compile your testimony and submit it to all the members of the Joint Finance Committee.


After their public hearings are completed, the Joint Finance Committee will hold a series of meetings in Madison, each time focusing in on individual state agencies.  During these meetings they debate and vote on amendments.  Once that process is complete, the committee has a final vote on the whole bill, as amended.


At that point, the budget is debated and voted on by both houses of the legislature, each of which can make changes.  Once an identical bill passes both the Senate and the Assembly, it is sent to the Governor, who, with the help of one of the most sweeping veto pens in the country, can make even more changes.


If the past is any guide, most changes that are going to be made will be made by the Joint Finance Committee.  Republicans control both houses of the legislature and therefore share control of that committee.  Whatever disagreements they have with the Governor, or with each other, will most likely be worked out while the bill is still in committee.  Wisconsin has a law that says the budget must be signed into law by the end of June, and most people expect that it will be passed before that deadline.


The budget is the blueprint for Wisconsin’s future.  You are paying for this future and you deserve to have a good look at those blueprints.  I look forward to talking with you in the coming weeks about your opinions of the Governor’s priorities, as outlined in his budget.  Please feel free to contact me if I can be of assistance with any state issue.  I can be reached via phone toll-free at 1-800 -469-6562 or by email at sen.bewley@legis.wi.gov.