Madison - As the budget committee wrapped up work last week, Republicans largely avoided putting earmarks in the state budget bill but injected new and far-reaching policies into it.
Late Friday night, the Joint Finance Committee approved allowing bail bondsmen in Wisconsin, sales tax exemptions for snow-making equipment and direct mail promotions, changing child labor laws and blocking local regulations on bird hunting preserves. The committee last week also amended the 2011-'13 budget bill to make it harder to get financial interest statements for public officials and limit the work that county highway crews can do, leaving more work for private contractors.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said the items were special interest legislation that wouldn't receive adequate public attention as part of the budget.
"Again, why would you put this in the budget in the dead of night instead of doing as a separate bill?" Barca said.
Republicans pushing the provisions say that they're appropriate for a budget because many have financial implications and because some of them, such as the bail bondsmen provision, have been introduced in past legislation. Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the budget committee, said the committee largely kept to his past promise of not having late night votes but in the case of Friday was seeking to finish its work to avoid having to work during the weekend.
"We did not have late night votes until the very end," Vos said.
The budget now goes to the Assembly and then to the Senate. Once those two houses agree on a bill, it goes to Gov. Scott Walker. In a statement, Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said that the governor will examine the provisions if and when they reach his desk.
"Overall the budget moved forward by the committee is consistent with the governor's priorities - it nearly eliminates the $3.6 billion budget deficit without raising taxes," Walker said. "The governor will evaluate the changes made by (Joint Finance), and any made in the future by the Legislature as a whole, once the final version of the bill reaches his desk."
In the past, lawmakers from both parties have used amendments like those presented in Joint Finance to salt the budget with pork-barrel projects such as state money for an Oshkosh opera house and for a soybean crusher in south-central Wisconsin.
Here's some of the proposals advanced by Joint Finance:
Prohibiting conflict of interest statements from more than 2,000 public officials from being released by email or fax by state ethics officials to members of the public, instead requiring the public to show up in person to receive them.
Revising child labor laws to end a prohibition on minors under age 18 working more than 40 hours or six days a week. The bill would also repeal the prohibition against minors under 16 working more than 24 hours a week, replacing that with a limit of 18 hours of work in a school week or 40 hours during a week with no school in session.
Requiring local governments to use contractors, instead of their own road crews, for certain projects that cost more than $100,000. Critics have said that could drive up costs for cash-strapped cities and counties.
Providing a $150,000-a-year exemption from the state sales tax for snow-making and grooming equipment used by ski slopes and trails.
Providing a $500,000-a-year sales tax exemption for direct-mail advertising.
Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) said she felt she had to vote no on some budget motions last week because she didn't have a "reasonable or realistic amount of time to know what was in it." Grigsby questioned why the state was seeking to change child labor laws as part of the budget.
Vos said Republicans on the committee were seeking to bring state labor rules for minors in line with federal law.
"It shouldn't be something controversial. We are accepting the federalized versions," Vos said.
Barca said he was concerned about the provision to make it harder to get information about the financial holdings of public officials that allow citizens to spot possible conflicts of interest.
"I would be against anything that makes it harder to get the information," Barca said. "Across the board it seems like we're moving away from Wisconsin's reputation for clean, open and honest government."
Reid Magney, a spokesman for the state Government Accountability Board, which keeps the ethics disclosures, said the agency was still examining what effect the budget provision would have.
Vos, who in addition to his legislative work owns a popcorn business, said he strongly suspected he had lost business because competitors had identified some of his customers through his state financial disclosures. He said the change would make it harder for out-of-state business competitors to poach his business.Wisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveWisconsin Wave