Recipe for Paralysis

The state budget stalemate was as predictable as it is frustrating. Recipe for Paralysis

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

September 13, 2007

The state budget stalemate was as predictable as it is frustrating.

A new budget was supposed to be in place by July 1. The one and only thing the Legislature absolutely, positively has to do every two years is pass a budget. Our elected representatives proved incapable of completing that task on time, and it’s still an open question when it will get done.

Whether the impasse ends tomorrow or next week or a month from now, the inability of our state legislators to get beyond partisan bickering and political posturing and actually do the job they were elected to do is an embarrassment to our state. Wisconsin is the only state in the nation with a July 1 deadline for adopting a budget that does not have one in place.

It’s tempting to lay blame on a few key actors in this soap opera. But the problem has less to do with personal failings or professional incompetence than it has to do with institutional breakdown.

Two powerful institutional forces are at work here. The first is the money in politics. The cost of running for state office has skyrocketed. The pressure to raise money has grown intense. If you’re a politician, your ability to get your message to voters depends on your fundraising prowess. The budget has fallen victim to this pathology in our politics.

There are few consequences if lawmakers are late in writing the budget. If they miss the July 1 deadline, the state keeps operating under the terms of the previous budget. It’s not until local governments need to set their property tax levies in the fall that some pressure on budget-writers begins to build.

While little other than self-respect is lost if legislators fail to meet budget deadlines, they have a huge incentive to drag out the budget process for as long as possible. The budget is being used as a fundraising tool. Dozens of fundraisers have been held, with lawmakers shaking down special interests who have a stake in budget decisions for campaign contributions. In fact, there have been considerably more fundraisers than budget negotiation meetings.

Legislators and the governor raised more than $2 million during the first half of the year while the budget was under development. When the next batch of campaign reports are filed next January, we’ll learn about millions more raised in the last half of the year. The budget is being auctioned to the highest bidder.

A second major force wreaking havoc with the state budget process is how legislative districts are drawn. Our legislators are empowered to design their own districts, and not surprisingly they design them in a way that favors their re-election. Voters are supposed to choose their representatives, not the other way around. In Wisconsin, it’s the other way around.

Representatives choosing their voters produces lopsided districts – either decidedly Democratic or safely Republican. There are very few evenly divided districts, and consequently precious few truly competitive elections for state Legislature.

Lopsided districts produce a Legislature full of fierce partisans and ideological purists. Lost are the moderates who help broker compromise. Left in their absence is polarization. And partisan gridlock. And budget stalemates. You have Democrats who control the Senate and Republicans who hold a majority in the Assembly unwilling and unable to constructively talk with each other.

There is a way out. A bipartisan bill – AB 61 – bans campaign fundraising during the budget process. More far reaching reform proposals like SB 12 and SB 182 thoroughly overhaul the way elections are paid for. A redistricting reform plan – AJR 63 – takes the task of drawing legislative districts away from legislators and injects much-needed competitiveness into our elections.

Unless these kinds of reforms are approved, expect future budget deliberations to be as slow, childish and fruitless as this year’s.