By Hoven Consulting
In February, Governor Tony Evers introduced his 2021-23 biennial budget proposal. The 1,000+ page document lays out the Governor’s preferred spending levels for all agencies and programs administered by state government for the next two fiscal years.
The challenge for Democratic Governor Evers is getting the Republican legislature to pass his spending bill. Many of the major tenants of the proposal, including marijuana legalization and accepting federal Medicaid expansion dollars, have already been rejected by legislative leaders.
The bill is now in the hands of the legislature’s budget-writing Joint Committee on Finance, a committee compromised of 6 Republicans and 2 Democrats from the Senate and 6 Republicans and 2 Democrats from the Assembly.
There are three core stages of the committee’s process. The first occurred earlier this month when the committee invited select administrative agency heads to testify and further explain the Governor’s spending proposals as it affects their agencies. This year, the committee spent two days hearing from the leaders of the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Workforce Development, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Public Service Commission. These four agencies compromise a significant portion of overall spending, along with the Department of Health Services and Department of Administration, which were not asked to testify.
These hearings are largely fact-finding missions, with some political barbs thrown in from time to time. They provide an early glimpse on how the legislature’s priorities differ from the Governor’s.
As of this writing, the committee is now in its second stage of holding hearings around the state to gain input from the public on how to prioritize spending. The first hearing was held in Whitewater on April 9, the second in Rhinelander on April 21, Menomonie on April 22, and finishing with a virtual hearing on April 28.
The public hearings are typically long days with hundreds of individuals testifying on a wide variety of issues. They provide the committee with general trends on what is important to the public and informs the committee’s third and final stage.
In May, the committee will begin voting agency by agency on its own spending proposals. They will typically meet two to three times a week each week in May spending many hours each day debating and voting on each proposal. This is the most important stage of the committee’s process as it’s basically the final chance to fight to put a priority in the budget or keep a bad proposal out of the budget.
This year, we expect significant departures from the committee’s (legislature’s) final budget proposal compared to the Governor’s. While proposals are beginning to solidify, much remains to be seen on major spending initiatives.
Complicating the matter is the $3.2 billion the state is receiving from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Governor Evers has complete discretion on how to spend these dollars without any legislative approval. It seems the legislature wants to know the details of the Governor’s plan to inform their budgeting initiatives.
Once the committee finishes its voting in May, the bill will go to the full legislature for a vote in both houses. The goal is for that to occur in June as the fiscal year ends July 1. In Wisconsin, the governor has the ability to line-item veto spending bills. In other words, he or she can veto portions of the budget bill without vetoing the bill in total. In 2019, Governor Evers vetoed many items in the bill that eventual passed the legislature. That is expected to occur again.
In short, the budget process is a long, somewhat messy undertaking with priorities and ideas that seem to shift daily. It’s not really until the dust settles after the Joint Committee on Finance finishes voting in May that the public gets a good idea of a final proposal. Stay tuned for updates as the process continues.