Newspaper headlines, in a single day last week, topped multiple stories this column has opined about over the years – all worthy of in depth scrutiny and analysis again.
Stories included: clinic plans to build two new hospitals; Japan bumps China as top holder of U.S. debt; and two state Joint Finance Committee (JFC) budget review actions – “DNR Board changes dropped” and “Cut targets Citizens’ Utility Board.”
The latter two are the focus of this column.
Both are changes in existing policy and administrative authority. The budget is often used to create, change or cancel policies by funding or cutting funding.
This column believes policy should be determined in separate bills and subject to scrutiny and hearings. The same for the so-called pork tacked on as a piggy-back to the crucial vote on the original bill.
The committee excluded Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip the Natural Resources Board and Agriculture Board of their policy making powers.
However, the committee voted to end ratepayers funding for CUB staff that advocates for lower electric rates for homeowners and renters.
Walker proposed the DNR and Ag boards overseeing those department be advisory only, giving their power to the governor and legislature.
JFC approved a proposal eliminating the $1.3 million grant, first created in 2009 by the legislature, that has helped pay for the staff and operations of the CUB, an active participant in proceedings at the state Public Service Commission.
PSC members are appointed to the independent board that is similar to the DNR board, but has more authority in determining utility rates.
Legislators supporting ending funding said it would save ratepayers $1.3 million over the biennial budget and whether their dollars should be used for this purpose.
Last year CUB represented consumers when three utilities proposed hiking monthly fixed charges on utility bills by at least 75 percent.
It seems like a penny wise and pound foolish decision over time.
It is not the first time a budget eliminated a state-funded position.
The Public Intervenor, established in 1967 during a reorganization of the state government approved by the legislature, was eliminated in the 1995-96 biennial budget. (The issue deserves a separate column because of other changes affecting government and citizens.)
My writing career involved many contacts with state agencies including those in this column. Following are some items from earlier columns on my perspective:
A comprehensive rewriting of rules on non-point pollution – water not traceable to a single source such as a treatment plant – occupied DNR/AG staff for several years and required two series of public hearings before becoming law.
The natural resources rules cover everything from lawn care fertilizer/mowing and construction sites, to runoff from hard surfaces and farm fields.
It is not possible for the DNR to avoid politics because its very nature of issues make it ripe for controversy and intervention by outside forces – be it the governor, state legislature or public.
It is common practice on both the state and federal level to insert policy issues that may fail scrutiny on their own, into the up-or-down votes on budgets. This practice has grown through both Republican and Democrat majorities.
Pork is not the issue of this column, but the use of the budget as means to establish new laws and policy and financing the agenda of the party and administration.
The finance committee also removed 13 other pieces of policy from the budget, including shifting property assessment duties from most municipalities to counties.
Like releasing the proverbial genie from the bottle, restoring the budget practice to its intended process is unlikely. The problem is that people, struggling to manage their own affairs, set the bar for government on a lower level.
Like spoiled children, those in power do what they can get away with.