Opportunities to be Heard on the State Budget

 I was talking with a group of constituents who came down to the Capitol this week. One of the women was concerned about something she read in the local paper in regards to the State Budget.  She talked about how she and her husband sit around the kitchen table once a month, figuring out together how much they can spend and how they want to spend it.  This week my colleagues who serve on the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee began gathering around a much bigger table on the fourth floor of the Capitol’s East Wing, to do essentially the very same thing.

Unlike the lights of television cameras and the busy jostling of lobbyists and media in the Finance room this week, the budget process started quietly last summer when state agencies started putting together their requests for the budget the Governor would introduce. Gov. Walker did that in February, formally submitting a bill that represents his priorities.  That bill was introduced in both houses as Senate Bill 30 and Assembly Bill 64, and is 989 pages long.

Now the Legislature - which like the Congress in D.C. has the so-called “power of the purse” -begins its work. We are lucky to have an invaluable resource that we rely on throughout the process -- the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.  This team of highly skilled financial and policy analysts has been lauded nationally and for good reason, they are simply the best.

The Fiscal Bureau took several weeks to analyze the Governor’s bill, or as I like to tell people, translate the bill into English. The Fiscal Bureau’s 504 page analysis is available online: https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/misc/lfb/budget/2017_19_biennal_budget.  And while the analysis is long, it is something you or I can understand. 

That analysis is what the Joint Finance Committee will work off of. This committee, made up of eight members from the Assembly and eight members of the Senate starts by holding public hearings in Madison, which feature the heads of state agencies discussing the parts of the budget that apply to them.   

The next, and often times most important, step in the budget process comes next week when the committee goes on the road to six communities across the state to take public testimony. The idea is to hear from the public before any amendments are offered or any votes are taken.  One of those hearings is in Spooner on Tuesday, April 18 at Spooner High School.  It starts at 10 am – public testimony will be taken until 6:00 pm.  I highly encourage anyone with comments on the state budget to take this opportunity.

And if you cannot testify in person please reach out to me and to your other elected officials with your input. Comments and concerns from the people of Northern Wisconsin are my top priority for this budget. I welcome your letters, calls and e-mails.  I will also be holding listening sessions across the North in April.  As soon as I have those set up I will publicize them in our local papers and list them on my website: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/25/bewley.  I hope to see you at one of them.

After the public hearings, the Finance Committee will begin the process of voting on the budget. The committee will likely make significant changes over the next two months and will send the bill to the full Assembly and Senate for further debate.  That is when legislators not on the Finance Committee will have a chance to offer amendments.  After we vote, the bill goes back to Governor Walker for his signature and vetoes.

We face a statutory deadline of July 1st to get the bill passed and signed. Unlike Washington, however, a government shutdown is not looming if the bill does not pass by the end of June.  Under Wisconsin law, the state continues under the 2015-16 budget until a new bill is enacted. 

My hope is that we can pass a budget that meets our communities’ needs, emphasizes Wisconsin’s priorities and treats everyone fairly. Getting the right balance will be my focus over the coming months.  I look forward to sharing more policies, priorities and details with you as the budget makes its way back to the Governor’s desk.