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A Freshman’s Take On the Budget Process

While citizen and school board president Joel Kitchens was no stranger to the budget process, freshman 1st District Assemblyman Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) found he was a stranger to the strange budget process of the Wisconsin Legislature.

“I don’t like the process as far as nonbudgetary items,” Kitchens said in a telephone call the day before Governor Scott Walker signed the budget, but not before vetoing 104 items.

Kitchens said he was as surprised as anyone when he learned – like most people, from the media – about the pre-Independence Day attempt to make government more secretive than it already is by limiting the application of the open records law when involving governmental deliberation. Many suspected the idea had come from the Governor’s office. But immediate backlash from left and right – including Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel – caused a retraction of the open records policy challenge.

“It was such a tremendous mistake,” Kitchens said of the open records changes inserted into the budget. “Even though the worst stuff was taken out, it made people so much more suspicious. I certainly wish they hadn’t done that. Even though it was taken out, it sets a bad light on everything. Having been in the process for a while now, I see how those things happen. It is an undemocratic process and things happen so fast.”

He said the open records changes came up so fast even the Joint Finance Committee didn’t really know what they were dealing with.

Kitchens mentions Joint Finance Committee member Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who apologized for being among the 12-4 party line vote on the open records changes.

“He proposed a 24- or 48-hour waiting period,” Kitchens said. “That’s a small step. That wouldn’t solve the problem. So much happens so quickly. It’s an awful process in some ways. We need to find some way to scale it way back, certainly. I’m certainly supportive of that.”

However anyone feels about the budget that was signed by the Governor on July 12, Kitchens asks you to remember the budget that Walker unveiled in February.

“The budget that we finally passed is a thousand times better than the budget we were given by the Governor back in February,” he said. “We did a lot of things with it. There are certainly a lot of things in there I don’t like, but it’s a lot better than it was.”

And only six months into his new role as 1st District representative, Kitchens made his mark on the budget.

“Our top priority was to return funding to public education,” he said.

Kitchens said media reports that aid is down for schools earlier this month were based on a statutorily required Department of Public Instruction [DPI] report on general aid for school districts around the state by July 1. The report said 55 percent of districts are getting less general aid, which is very different from the per-pupil categorical aid that is tabulated once school has started.

“That was a really misleading thing that the DPI put out,” Kitchens said. “Where we put money back, it was categorical aid. That’s not the general aid. People look at that and say these schools are getting less money, but they’re not. None of the schools are getting less money. It’s factual that we’re getting less general aid, but that’s not the whole story. And even the general aid, where it went down was because of declining enrollment.

“I won’t say we improved, because we’re barely keeping up with inflation, if we even are, but we’re not cutting it, which is the big spin put on that by the other side. So I’m glad we did that.”

Kitchens also worked for two significant items for his district.

“One of the things I fought very hard for and had success with was getting funding back into the [Knowles-Nelson] stewardship program. That’s something that’s very important to our area,” he said.

Walker’s budget put a 13-year moratorium on the stewardship program. Because Kitchens and two of his colleagues led the effort to restore funding for the land stewardship program, Gathering Waters, the alliance for the state’s land trusts, has named all three of the Republican lawmakers as Policymaker of the Year.

Kitchens, along with Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) and Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) will be recognized at the annual Land Conservation Leadership Awards Celebration on Sept. 24, 2015, at the Monona Terrace in Madison for “vocally supporting Stewardship within their caucus and actively participating in a working group that negotiated the compromise approved by the Joint Committee on Finance to restore the Stewardship Program to $33 million per year.”

Mike Carlson, external relations director for Gathering Waters, said Walker’s proposal was “really quite alarming, so we really set out to work with legislators to try to find a middle ground or a compromise on stewardship in the budget.”

“We had some really positive meetings with Rep. Kitchens in particular,” Carlson said. “He actually came up and met at the Door County Land Trust offices with a number of different stakeholders and we were there as well. He really voiced an interest in working to find a solution to stewardship.”

Carlson said Rep Novak, from the Dodgeville area, also recognized the importance of the stewardship program to his district, as did Rep. Loudenbeck, who is also a member of the powerful Joint Finance Committee.

After hearing from his colleagues about the problems of the stewardship moratorium, Speaker Robin Vos put together a working group of legislators to hammer out a compromise, and Carlson said the three legislators being recognized were in the middle of that group.

“We really tried to identify champions and folks that were really willing to find a solution with our land trust colleagues,” Carlson said. “We felt they should be recognized for stepping up.”

The other big ticket item for Kitchen’s district is $4.2 million committed for the revitalization of a deteriorated Kewaunee Harbor, a commercial harbor that has existed since 1881 consisting of about 6,500 feet of breakwater and pier structures and 5,500 feet of maintained channel.

“Restoration of the Kewaunee Harbor is absolutely vital to the economic outlook of the region,” Kitchens said in a press release after the Joint Finance Committee included it in the budget. “Kewaunee is currently recovering from the loss of more than 600 family-supporting jobs at the recently closed Kewaunee nuclear plant. The city is in a prime position to expand its economy and job market once the harbor and surrounding area are repaired.

“Kewaunee has already done so much to prepare the harbor for development,” Kitchens continued. “The JFC’s approval of funding was the final step of a long journey. I am very much looking forward to breaking ground on this project.”

The day before the governor signed the budget, Kitchens was optimistic that the Kewaunee Harbor project would not face the gubernatorial veto pen.

“That’s an enormous win for this area,” he said. “And in this budget, that was a tough road. That was a very big win for the area. It’s such a pretty little town with so much potential. I think this is really going to make a difference for them.”

One question had to be asked. Was there any evidence of the Governor’s political aspirations in the budget?

“I have to be honest,” Kitchens said. “I think there were things, maybe not to the extent people would like to play it up. I certainly think transportation. That was a disappointment. We were put into a box on that because he insisted that any increase in fees or taxes, he was going to veto. Instead he’s borrowing more money for transportation. That’s not sustainable. We can’t do that. In the end, we ended up cutting back on the bonding and shifting some money around so we’re not bonding as much. He wanted to bond $1.2 billion, which is kind of ridiculous. We couldn’t raise any kind of fees. We would like to raise either registration fees or the gas tax.

“I think that one in particular was fueled by his presidential run because he wants to be able to say he didn’t raise taxes. That was a tough one. We tried to negotiate. We talked about doing a veto override on that, but we couldn’t get the Senate to go along on that. So we were in a box on that one. In the end, our roads are going to continue to suffer because we don’t have enough money for things.”