Monday, May 07, 2007

Scrap the JFC's Role in the Budget Process?

Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) has created some waves with a letter recommending Assembly Republicans pull out of the Joint Finance Committee talks on the budget.

The complaint stems from the fact that split decisions result in no action. So whenever Republicans object to a portion of the governor's budget proposal, all Dems need to do is raise their eight hands to shoot it down.

This, of course, isn't exactly how it's playing out in all instances. The Dems tried to negotiate on the real estate transfer fee increase last week -- the first big ticket item on the docket -- by proposing a sliding scale for the fee depending on the sale price of the house, but Republicans rejected that by simply raising their eight hands in opposition.

Nass also ignores that the JFC has come to some agreements on the budget. Before the committee even started its official sessions, a number of budget provisions were tossed for being policy (read: controversial) issues such as repealing the QEO, domestic partner benefits for UW employees, collective bargaining rights for UW employees, etc.

And since starting negotiations, the JFC has managed to agree on some other changes, such as cutting half the proposed budget for a tech college job training initiative and restoring the independent status of the Judicial Council (side note: evidently that's a different kind of policy move than those that were tossed before the official voting began).

But the agreements have been fairly minor in relation to the votes that have split 8-8 on bigger ticket items like the real estate transfer fee and those that lay ahead such as the hospital assessment, the oil company assessment, the cigarette tax, etc. And while these big ticket items may make it through the JFC on split votes, they're simply not going to make it through -- at least in one piece -- the GOP-controlled Assembly.

So eventually it'll come to the point that Nass recommends going to now, which is hashing out the budget differences in a conference committee. With the current JFC process, only the smaller items will be resolved in advance, anyway. And if the two sides aren't going to take the time to negotiate a middle ground, such as on the real estate transfer fee, why spend all of the time that it'll take to simply split the vote on the bigger items?

But the big advantage, in my view, of skipping the JFC and letting the two houses craft their own budgets that would then get worked out in a conference committee is that it would force Republicans to put the rubber on the road by explicitly documenting what they plan to cut to account for their revenue proposals.

As it stands now, Republicans get to make proposals like phasing out state revenue from the real estate transfer fee without doing the heavy lifting of explaining what's going to be cut to make up for the funding hole that would be created.

The transfer fee is dedicated for state aid to counties to help pay for the Circuit Courts and services for at-risk youth through the Community Youth and Family Aids Program. Are those the services that should be cut to account for the fee rollback, or are the funds going to be directed from somewhere else to cover the hole?

Governor Doyle is justifiably getting some heat for not putting a clear price tag on the Wisconsin Covenant program to give legislators and the public a chance to weigh the cost effectiveness of the otherwise agreeable proposal.

The Republican lead on the JFC, Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson), called the Wisconsin Covenant plan "bumper sticker politics" since it didn't include a fiscal estimate. How is the same not true for proposals to cut revenue without explicitly identifying the services that would be impacted as a result?

Whether proposing new services or cutting revenue, openness and accountability for budget proposals needs to work both ways.

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