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Editorial: Limit budget to dollars, sense

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opinion Ellsworth, 54011
Pierce County Herald
715-273-4335 customer support
Ellsworth Wisconsin 126 S. Chestnut St. 54011

Wisconsin lawmakers and the governor apparently have a different understanding of the meaning and purpose of a budget than the rest of us.

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They’ve taken what should be a statement of expenditures and proposals for financing them, and folded in a series of unrelated items that evidently wouldn’t stand on their own.

The $70 billion budget package signed by Gov. Scott Walker June 30 has way too many non-money items-so many, it’s hard to get a clear count.

The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau originally identified 58 non-fiscal items in the budget proposal. According to a subsequent analysis, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) removed 23 of those but added another 59.

After the legislature adopted the budget, Walker used his line-item veto power to delete a few and deserves some credit for that. But rather than using a veto pen, Walker should have used a black marker and hacked out a bunch more.

Two non-fiscal items among the 57 words or phrases Walker vetoed include a provision to again allow bail bondsmen to work in Wisconsin and another that would have prevented any University of Wisconsin involvement in the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

While the second item was a silly last-minute addition that never should have been in the budget or any other bill, for that matter, the bail bondsmen issue is one that should be debated if any lawmakers believe it would be beneficial to the state and its courts.

A policy-changing item Walker did not veto is a provision forcing certain arrested felons to give their DNA to law enforcement at arrest, rather than upon conviction.

The budget does set aside $6 million for the collection expansion, so we suppose some could argue this item does belong in the budget. But that still doesn’t answer ethical, legal and procedural questions.

Some lawmakers are rightly concerned the DNA collection infringes on Fourth Amendment rights of an accused person, who at that point is presumed innocent under our laws. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Maryland case taking DNA from arrestees is akin to fingerprinting and is constitutional.

The JFC tweaked the plan during a late-night session to prohibit police from forwarding the DNA to the state crime labs until a court determines probable cause for arrest exists. Wisconsin’s attorney general complained the changes would slow down investigations and create other holes in the system.

The confusion and contradictions should have been hammered out in open talks rather than leaving law enforcement officials scratching their heads about how to enforce the new requirement.

The budget eliminates local residency requirements for teachers, but would allow local units of government to insist their police, fire and emergency personnel live within 15 miles of the boundaries of their jurisdictions.

State limits on residency requirements that have been set by school districts and cities are not issues to slip through in a 1,400-page state budget.

This year, the four-month budget process went far more smoothly than the bitter controversy surrounding adoption of the state budget in 2011. We’d guess that can be attributed mostly to an improved economy that shifted focus from potential deficits and deep cuts to schools to tax cuts and modest increases for education. And we are glad for that.

But when more than 90 non-fiscal issues are adopted in a budget bill, there is no public discussion of their merits. Plans, whether they make sense or not, are pushed ahead and adopted-not because they are great ideas, but because lawmakers don’t want to vote against the full budget bill.

If a proposal can be introduced and stand on its own, that’s fine. But to attach an idea to unrelated legislation and hide it from the normal committee process and public discussion is bad government.

It’s only common sense individual proposals should be discussed and approved based on their own merits, and common sense is the least we should be able to expect from our governor and our lawmakers.

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Pat Hunter
(715) 425-1561
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