Non-fiscal budget items draw flak

Some campaign promises build in a bit of wiggle room. The one made by candidate for governor Scott Walker to “Strip policy and pork projects from the state budget” did not.

This unequivocal pledge, posted on Walker’s campaign website, committed the candidate to eschewing both parties’ longstanding practice of using the budget to make policy changes and reward special interests.

In April 2011, less than four months into Walker’s term, the truth-testers at PolitiFact Wisconsin branded this a broken promise. It noted that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau had identified dozens of non-fiscal items in the governor’s budget repair bills and first biennial budget.

Walker’s latest executive budget, for 2013-15, included what the Fiscal Bureau identified as 58 policy items and 15 pieces of pork — that is, expenditures or breaks with specific beneficiaries. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee removed only a dozen policy items.

Spokesman Tom Evenson, asked if the governor had a change of heart about his campaign vow, said in an email that Walker has turned a $3.6 billion budget deficit into a projected $560 million surplus and made gains in job creation.

“We’re better off than we were two years ago, and sound fiscal management is allowing us to invest in our priorities and move Wisconsin forward,” Evenson wrote.

It’s hard to deny that Walker is doing pretty much exactly what he promised to stop. But that doesn’t mean the pork projects and policy items included in his budget are bad ideas.

Among the identified earmarks, a.k.a. pork, are $10.6 million for a Milwaukee facility to serve families affected by domestic violence, $5 million for a Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence in Marinette County, and a $1 million allocation to the Teach for America program.

Moreover, some items flagged as non-fiscal, including a program for expanded DNA collection, do involve budget allocations. The Fiscal Bureau acknowledges its list “always requires some subjective judgment” but says it applies consistent criteria, like whether an item “typically would be reviewed by a standing committee of the Legislature.”

Among other things, Walker’s budget would ease state regulation on rent-to-own companies, create a new charter school oversight board, disallow wolf hunting at night, and name a Milwaukee crime lab after a former Milwaukee County prosecutor.

Even some members of Walker’s own party think he’s gone too far.

“The governor campaigned on not having policy in the budget,” state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “What happened to that promise?” His answer: “They pile things into the budget so they can hide them, and they don’t have to take responsibility for their action.”

One controversial policy item in Walker’s budget would bar local governments and school districts from imposing residency rules on their employees. This has been decried as a meddling attack on local control and as political payback to police and fire unions in Milwaukee that have supported Walker.

At a May 8 press conference in the state Capitol organized by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the proposed change “horrible public policy” that could never pass as stand-alone legislation.

Another speaker, Beloit City Manager Larry Arft, said local communities want to make sure their employees are “sharing the destiny of the residents that are paying their salaries.” And Two Rivers City Manager Greg Buckley said it’s a good to have municipal workers living nearby “when the crap hits the fan or when it starts backing up in your basement.”

The Joint Finance Committee, meeting the next day, largely ignored such concerns. It kept intact the ban on residency rules while allowing only distance-based rules for certain emergency workers.

During that same meeting, the Finance Committee added a new non-fiscal budget provision — forbidding any municipality from banning the sale of large sugary drinks.

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