Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Budget Update Day Two: Christmas in June

So we’re finally to the much anticipated day that the budget is on the floor of the Assembly. This day is Christmas in June for the minority party (Democrats), as this the day they set their agenda for the upcoming elections by making the majority party (Republicans) vote against popular budget amendments.

The budget is essentially a negotiated compromise between the two houses (when the houses are controlled by the same party, the Joint Finance Committee is where the budget is negotiated) – it makes it extremely complicated for one house to unilaterally make any changes, because the budget then has to back to the other house for agreement on the amendments.

The minority party leverages the inflexibility of amending the budget against the majority. This means they load up amendment after amendment, knowing the majority members have to vote against all of them, even though they may agree in principle. In the last budget, Senate Democrats offered 118 amendments, while Assembly Democrats offered 55. Wispolitics.com reported on Monday that Assembly Democrats have prepared 150 amendments for floor action today. These amendments are under no obligation to be funded, relevant, or sane, and they constitute a wish list for Democrats on virtually every issue.

It is certain that you will see amendments from the Democrats that will kick in another $400 million for education, that will raise the state minimum wage, that will lift the caps on teacher salaries, that will declare Brett Favre the King of Wisconsin, and promote dressing bunnies up in cute little Mr. Peanut costumes. Republicans will vote against all of them, because the agreement between houses can’t be broken. Thus, you will see an ad during campaign season that says “Representative Debi Towns voted against cutening bunnies,” when in fact Representative Towns may be squarely pro-cute bunny. She herself might actually have a bunny at home fitted with a top hat, cane, and monacle. In fact, the elections board has reported that Towns has received $8 from bunny-related interests this biennium.

The only recourse Republicans have in this charade is to add up the total spending increases proposed by the Democrats, and hope to drill them with voting for more spending during the campaign. Since Democrats are under no obligation to fund their amendments, it’s easy to add up the total cost to come up with some completely ridiculous number.

This game by the minority (played by Republicans, too) is especially effective due to the media’s craving for a storyline. After a hundred or so amendments, budget deliberations often go deep into the night, which then allows the Democrats to say the budget was passed “under the cover of darkness” or “while you were sleeping.” The truth is, it is the Democrats who drive the debate into the wee hours of the morning, specifically so they can use the time as a talking point. If the Republicans had their way, they would walk on to the floor, talk for about 5 minutes, and pass that bad boy out. Democrats, on the other hand, need to look like they are putting up a fight, so they essentially filibuster to punish the Republicans. Needless to say, after today’s debate, Democrats will talk for hours, then accuse the GOP majority of trying to pass the budget while nobody was paying attention. For an example of this, see Senator Judy Robson’s release from Monday, June 20th, where she exhumes this old line before the budget even hits the floor.

This procedure goes for pretty much any bill that makes Democrats look bad – they will delay, then make the GOP look like they passed it late in the evening. The press generally swallow this line whole.

A similarly related tactic, although one not used during the budget, is for the minority party to delay action on a bill and then complain that the Legislature is wasting people’s time by doing such a bill. In fact, it is the very legislators hell bent on wasting everybody’s time that have to do so to complain that the Legislature is wasting time.

For instance, take the resolution banning gay marriage that passed last session. Given no resistance, that bill would take about ten minutes to pass, since it had the votes all along. The outcome of that bill was predetermined, as is the case with most bills. Democrats, however, need the “wasting everyone’s time” talking point, so they have to filibuster, offer amendments, delay, and generally by obstructive to make sure enough time wasting occurs, so they can then blame it on Republicans.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at some of the reaction to the floor action and at some more specific programs in the budget that deserve attention.

UPDATE: "Big Ups" to Xoff for directing all these intelligent people my way. You are all fine people. Except you, over there.