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Last-minute surprises, secretive moves hide lawmakers’ actions

Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the “State of the State” address in Madison, Wis., held at the State Capitol building, on Jan. 10, 2017. A comparison of omnibus budget motions showed both parties have used the controversial mechanism to anonymously tuck items into the state budget, but the size and impact of the items included has ballooned during Walker’s tenure. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
CV Vitolo-Haddad and Dee J. Hall

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

 
It was 10:30 p.m. June 3, 2011—the last day of deliberations on Wisconsin’s state budget. Members of the Joint Finance Committee, after days of fighting over budget items, perked up when two Republicans, Sen. Glenn Grothman and Rep. Robin Vos, unveiled a surprise, a tax cut worth hundreds of millions of dollars to manufacturers and agricultural businesses.

Then-Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, appeared stunned by the size of the tax cut and asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to add up the total cost over its four-year phase-in.

The official estimate projected $320 million to start and $128.7 million in annual state revenue losses — after large cuts were made to education and other programs to balance the budget.

“This is nauseating,” said Grigsby, who left the Legislature in 2013 and died in 2016.

Vos, then co-chairman of the committee, and Grothman, now a U.S. representative, argued it would bring jobs to Wisconsin, which had a 7.6 percent unemployment rate at the time; the measure had no requirement that jobs be added, or even retained, to qualify for the credit.

After a brief and sometimes heated debate, the tax cut, now known as the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit, passed on a 12-4 party-line vote.

Within 30 minutes, without any public hearings or public notice, lawmakers had endorsed one of the biggest tax breaks enacted under Gov. Scott Walker.

More secrets

Since 2010, when voters swept Republicans into power, Wisconsin legislators have increasingly used secretive maneuvers to keep the public in the dark about major spending and policy changes, interviews and records show.

An investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found the Legislature systematically diminishes the voices of the public by:

● Introducing budget amendments at the end of the approval process with no public notice or debate.

● Approving anonymous, last-minute budget motions containing a grab bag of changes, including major policy items that have nothing to do with state spending.

● Changing the scope and impact of a bill after its public hearing has been held, which excludes regular citizens from having meaningful influence before it is enacted.

Secretive techniques are not unique to Republicans, or even to Wisconsin. When Democrats controlled the Legislature and governor’s office before the 2010 elections, endorsed their own end-of-the-session wrap-up budget bills of anonymously authored items.

Estimates now show the tax break slipped into the 2011-13 budget will end up costing the state $334 million in revenue this budget year — more than double the original projection. The tax break virtually erases tax bills for some businesses and individuals that apply for it.

“The fact that the tax cut was passed at the last minute with no public input was not good,” said Tamarine Cornelius, an analyst with the left-leaning Wisconsin Budget Project. “But it’s not that unusual. A lot of things get slipped into budget amendments; it’s just that they don’t usually wind up costing upwards of $300 million a year.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers has called for the tax credit to be severely curtailed, noting nearly 80 percent of the money goes to people and businesses earning at least $1 million a year. Walker has said eliminating the credit would harm Wisconsin’s economy.

Studies disagree about whether the credit has spurred job growth, with University of Wisconsin-Madison economics professor Noah Williams crediting it with creating 20,000 manufacturing jobs while the Wisconsin Budget Project cites federal statistics showing state manufacturing job and wage growth continue to be slower here than the national average.

But one thing is indisputable: The public and many lawmakers never had the chance to hear the merits and risks of the plan before it was passed.

Anonymous budget proposals grow

One secretive mechanism used by the Legislature is the final omnibus budget motion, sometimes known as motion 999. The motion compiles a vast array of anonymously introduced items as a package, then the Joint Finance Committee votes on the changes. The public has little chance to comment.

Former state Sen. Tim Cullen, a Democrat who served between 1975 and 1987 and again from 2011 to 2015, said use of these omnibus motions has changed significantly since his first time in the Senate.

Cullen, who served as Senate majority leader, said in the 1970s and ’80s, 999 motions had an informal limit of $25,000 per item and were prohibited from having broad or statewide impact. Typical items were money for a local historical society, a liquor license for a township or a gymnasium, he said.

However, in recent years, these budget fixes have included sweeping measures such as the attempt to dismantle the Wisconsin Open Records Law — a proposal so unpopular that Walker and GOP leaders agreed to remove it from the 2015-17 budget.

Former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican who also served as majority leader, said in the past, this wrap-up budget motion allowed each side to make minor changes to keep the budget passage moving along. Schultz, of Richland Center, served from 1983 to 2015.

According to Schultz, it used to be “pretty obvious” who was backing these small-scale budget amendments. But this has changed.

“When you decide to thwart Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, and nobody ‘fesses up as to who did it, well, how does the public have a right to know?” Schultz said of the 2015 Republican- written 999 motion.

That motion sparked a statewide public backlash that crossed ideological lines. It was the moment that conservative activist Orville Seymer parted ways with conservatives in the Legislature whom he has supported.

“They tried to destroy the Open Records “Law and open meetings. That was the most atrocious thing I’ve seen in years and years and years,” said Seymer, founder of Citizens for Responsible Government, a government accountability group founded during the Milwaukee County pension scandal in the early 2000s.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, has noticed in her 11 years in the Legislature an increase in the number of  “different pieces of policy that have been added to the budget at the last minute.”

“This policy, most of it, would not ever pass if it had its own bill and its own public hearing because it would be so unpopular,” said Vinehout, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

This story was produced as part of an investigative reporting class in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism managing editor. The Center’s collaborations with journalism students are funded in part by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW-Madison.

The nonprofit Center (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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