On “slow” news days during this time of year, journalists sometimes resort to suggesting tongue-in-cheek gifts for public officials. Here, the practice is turned on its ear, and state politicians are offered simple gift-giving ideas.
Safeguarding the process
The first two gifts relate to lawmaking. In recent decades, legislative majorities regardless of party have occasionally rammed through controversial legislation, including tax increases, in a day or two without a public hearing.
Requiring that every bill scheduled for floor action have at least two hours of hearings followed by a one-week waiting period would help mitigate such lawmaking mischief. This practice could be even more valuable when the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance is finalizing the state budget. JCF could be required to observe a three-day period between introduction of amendments and final committee approval of the budget.
Two additional gifts touch on access to elected officials, long in decline in both Washington and Madison. The days of regular press conferences open to all questions are largely past. This and succeeding governors could reverse the trend by creating a new tradition: a first-Wednesday-of-the-month Capitol press conference.
In a twist on British tradition, the two houses of the legislature could each host the governor for a similar mid-year, 90-minute “Question Time.” A month in advance, members would submit questions to bipartisan leadership that would then select up to 10 questions and forward them to the governor. At Question Time, inquiries would be selected in random order and answered by the governor.
Three more gifts address growing incivility, partisan polarization and personal attack in state politics. This division is represented in how lawmakers are seated, all caucus members together, one party on the right, one on the left. To make matters worse, party leaders are said to discourage social contact with colleagues across the aisle.
A small, symbolic change would mix Democrats and Republicans on the floor. Whether seating is by random assignment, district, geography, or name, this would promote sociability and cooperation. The same approach could be extended to Capitol office assignments where party segregation also occurs. An added benefit would be cost savings from reducing biennial office moves.
In a similar spirit, the senior state senator in each Congressional district could host a semi-annual brown-bag or potluck lunch for all senators and representatives in the region. With an average of about 17 state legislators per U.S. House district, meetings would be small enough to promote dialogue and understanding.
Promoting fiscal health
So far, these gifts could be delivered tomorrow. A more ambitious one recognizes that both parties have compromised state fiscal health by enacting budgets without the adequate reserves needed to protect Wisconsin from unavoidable recessions. In the past, when the economy has dipped, deficits, tax hikes and spending cuts have been the unnecessary result.
Given the inability of elected officials to follow statutes meant to prevent such problems, it appears that responsible budgeting can only be achieved by constitutional amendment. One approach, adapted from Iowa, would allow Wisconsin to spend only 97 percent of estimated biennial revenues. If the legislature passed the amendment in 2016 and again in 2017, and voters quickly approved, it could be law before the next gubernatorial election.
So, there you have it: Seven little gifts from politicians to the people, none controversial, that could be implemented quickly and in bipartisan fashion. With these in place, state leaders could work to gain approval of the eighth, a long overdue plan to promote state fiscal responsibility before 2018.