Holiday gifts lawmakers could give us

During this season, political pundits often pen columns offering tongue-in-cheek holiday gifts for politicians. With so many new faces (38) in the 2011-12 Legislature, this might be the year to reverse the gift-giving and suggest a few real gifts state legislators could offer constituents.

First, some stocking stuffers . . .

Hearings. In recent years, lawmakers have voted on some bills without a public hearing or with only a last-minute one. A useful legislative gift to constituents is a pledge to hold hearings on all bills, and to provide at least a week’s notice beforehand.

Scheduling. Too often, the legislature does important work after midnight or on weekends. The new legislature could end this practice. Concentrating floor business on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday would add further family-friendliness to the proposal.

Catchall budgets. State budget bills used to be modest in length and limited to financial items.  Today they exceed 1,000 pages and contain many “nonfiscal” items. Lawmakers could commit to removing all nonfiscal policy items from budgets and redraft them as separate bills.

Budget earmarks. Another budget problem involves amendments from individual lawmakers that have no state benefit. Like federal earmarks, these amendments impact specific local programs or policies. Legislative leaders (backed by gubernatorial veto) could stop this practice, too.

“Affordable” gifts. The state budget prompts other gift-giving ideas for a new legislature eager to please voters.

Deadlines. State budgets here are sometimes not enacted until fall. To ensure timely budgets, Wisconsin could look elsewhere for ideas. Some states shut down nonessential state programs until a new budget passes. Others stop paying or freeze legislative expenses or salaries until passage.

Prudent planning. Financial planners urge households to set aside savings for emergencies. State government has rarely done this.  A welcome gift to the state would be legislative and gubernatorial commitments to follow the intent of state law and place 2 percent, or more, of what it appropriates in statutory reserves.

More inclusion. In many states, the two legislative houses and multiple committees make independent budget decisions. In Wisconsin, activity is concentrated in the 16-member Joint Committee on Finance (JCF). This approach may streamline budgeting, but it also leaves many important decisions to as few as nine of 132 legislators. At one time, JCF used issue-area “study groups” that included JCF members and legislators from relevant standing committees. This added expertise, diversity, and credibility to budget deliberations; returning to it would be a meaningful gift to all 132 legislators and the people of Wisconsin.


“Big” presents

In addition to small gifts, what eye-popping presents might legislators offer the people they represent?

Calendar discipline. Wisconsin is one of a few states without a time limit on the length of legislative sessions. Lawmakers could establish statutory or constitutional limits on the number and timing of total days in session.  Such a change could end tardy budgets; create more opportunities to serve for citizen-lawmakers; and reduce the cost and mischief associated with per diems claims.

Fiscal discipline. The state budget process is unusual: Spending decisions come first; if revenue is needed, tax and fee hikes are voted; and, if any money remains, it is saved.  A major reform could reverse the process. First, “budget framework” legislation would set the revenue amount available and make a mandatory appropriation to statutory reserves. Then, remaining revenue could be spent or taxes cut. This would ensure that the state manages its finances responsibly – saving first and spending within its mean. An added advantage might be an end to recurring state budget crises.

Todd Berry is president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

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