Wisconsin's budget basics: Here's how the process works and how it affects you
Wisconsin passes a budget every two years. The Wisconsin Blue Book, a comprehensive manual on state government, calls it “easily the most significant piece of Legislation that is enacted during the entire Legislative session.”
Wisconsin's budget explained:
- Why is the Wisconsin budget so important?
- How does the budget affect you?
- How can you get involved?
- What time period does the budget cover?
- How is the state budget different from federal budgeting?
- What did Gov. Tony Evers propose in his version of the budget?
- What’s the budget process like?
- What are “ominbus motions” and when will you see them?
- What are the governor’s veto powers after the Legislature passes its version of the budget?
- What are “trailer bills” and how could they affect this budget?
Why is the Wisconsin budget so important?
The budget bill lays out almost all dollars that will be spent by the state government during the two years covered by the bill. The budget is also the best opportunity for a governor to set a public policy agenda for those two years.
In addition, the budget is one bill that has to pass. As a result, while both Republicans and Democrats really try to advance their goals, their joint input in the process means it's one area where the parties are forced to compromise to get it done.
Do you pay taxes? Do you get welfare benefits? State-run health care? Do you drive on bridges or roads with potholes? Use services from city and county governments, like libraries, county buses, parks, trash collection, or snow plowing? Do you ever interact with police or firefighters? Need an ambulance? Do your kids go to public schools? Or the University of Wisconsin System?
If any of these things is true, the budget will cover how these aspects of your life are funded and what services, programs and coverage are available to you.
The budget covers everything from spending on schools to medical assistance like BadgerCare, to aid local governments. “I mean, it’s kind of all encompassing,” says JR Ross, editor of WisPolitics.com.
If the budget doesn't pass, Wisconsin just keeps going with current law. “The problem, of course, with that is that inflation is driving up costs,” says Ross. “So if you are a school district, for example, and you got X dollars in this current budget, your costs are going up. That X dollars are probably not going to cut it the next two years. So you're looking to increase something to help you deal with what's going on.”
The Joint Committee on Finance sets up several public hearings around the state to get input on the budget. Those are done for the year.
There was a website for the public to provide input (it's now closed) and a dedicated email address for input only at email@example.com
Legislators are elected officials, accountable to the public. There are 16 members of the state's powerful Joint Committee on Finance, which deconstructs Evers' budget and constructs their own. And each Wisconsin resident also has two legislators, both a state senator and a state representative, who represent them. You can search for your elected officials here.
"Lawmakers react when they get phone calls," says Ross. "If people call them up and express a point of view and they get enough calls, they pay attention to that kind of stuff."
Many states have a “drop-dead” date by which a new state budget must be enacted in order for state government to continue to operate. Wisconsin does not have such a deadline. In Wisconsin, if a new state budget is not enacted by June 30 of the odd-numbered year, state government continues to operate and its programs are funded, but only at the prior year’s appropriation amounts.
The Wisconsin Constitution requires that the Legislature “provide for an annual tax sufficient to defray the estimated expenses of the state for each year.” What this means in practice is that Wisconsin has a balanced-budget requirement, in which state expenditures must equal revenues received by the state. According to the Wisconsin Blue Book, “generally speaking, at each stage of the budget process, in which different versions of the budget are formulated and considered, each version of the budget must be balanced by having proposed state expenditures in any fiscal year be less than or equal to anticipated state revenues.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed his two-year budget in mid-February. In it, he asked for:
- Middle class tax cuts
- Increasing money [shared revenue] to local governments by allocating 20% of the state’s sales tax, or $576 million in the first year, with future payments increasing as the sales tax goes up:
- $2.6 billion in additional spending on K-12 schools
- $290 million for improvements to the Milwaukee Brewers stadium
- Accepting federal Medicaid expansion
- Legalizing marijuana
- Background checks for gun purchases
- Automatic voter registration
- The biennial budget bill also lists the overall amounts appropriated for each state agency operations and programs
Evers collected information on the 2023-2025 budget starting in 2022, when the State Budget Office in the Department of Administration submitted budget instructions to executive branch agencies about their budget needs.
According to the Wisconsin Blue Book, the budget bill that Wisconsin’s governor drafts every two years “is a solid foundation on which the Legislature can build its version of the budget, a process which serves both the governor and the Legislature well.”
After the governor puts forth his proposal, there’s a Joint Finance process. The GOP-controlled Joint Committee on Finance (also known as the JFC) has four public hearings around the state starting in early April. It will also have some agency heads testify about specific areas of the budget.
While the executive branch often has six months or more to prepare the governor’s budget bill, the Joint Committee on Finance will do its work in a much shorter time span, often only six to eight weeks. In 2023, the JFC started its process on May 2.
After the committee gets through that process, it begins to move on to executive sessions. The Joint Committee on Finance starts voting on the budget, basically line by line. “The first act we anticipate is that they will have a rather long motion that will strip what is in their minds policy from Gov. Evers out of the budget. And they will start off of current law and build their version line by line,” says JR Ross, editor of WisPolitics.com.
In the beginning of May 2023, GOP members of the Joint Committee on Finance stripped Evers’ budget bill of more than 500 items.
When Republicans strip an item from the budget, it means that Democrats can’t try to get spending or legislation on that item in this budget. But if Republicans have kept an item in the budget but modified Evers’ proposal on the item, those topics are still up for debate.
“The big question I have in this process are how are Gov. Evers and Republican leaders: Robin Vos, the Assembly speaker, and Devin LeMahieu, the state Senate majority leader, how are they going to work together?” asks Ross.
Ross says something feels different about this 2023-2025 budget because “there’s a lot of money lying around.” Ross says he’s interested to see “how [the budget process] plays out and how the governor works with [Republicans] after they kind of worked against each other last two go rounds.”
Once the budget passes the JFC, it goes before the full Republican-controlled state Senate and state Assembly. Then it goes before Evers.
Omnibus motions come into play when the Joint Committee on Finance takes up the budget requests of state agencies. “An omnibus motion is basically like a very small budget for an agency,” says Ross. “The motion takes everything from a single agency and puts it into one motion that is voted on at one time. So it speeds up the process."
“So when you see the committee notice coming in [for a session at] 11 o'clock that doesn’t meet until 6 p.m.,” says Ross. “That means [likely] legislators took a lot of time to negotiate the final details and also it takes some time for the legislative fiscal bureau to draft the [omnibus] motion that they then take up and vote on.”
The Wisconsin governor has one of the most powerful veto pens in the country. The governor can use it to cross out a word in a sentence or bits of sentences (or numbers) in a spending bill. The key is that there is spending in the bill. “So, if you put policy in the budget, for example, that is a real issue for Republicans because you open the door to Gov. Evers reworking that policy language with his veto pen,” explains Ross. Evers can also reduce amounts of money budgeted to state agencies by writing in a lower amount.
Ross says expect to see more “trailer bills” in this year’s budget process. Trailer bills are a way for Republicans to separate the money in the budget from policy by putting policy in a separate piece of legislation.
“And the reason you do that is governors in Wisconsin have the most powerful veto pen in the country, or at least one of them," re-emphasizes Ross. "And they're able to do all kinds of things. But they can only use it when the bill has an appropriation [money]. If you put the policy in a trailer bill, outside of the budget, there's no money. Therefore, the governor can't rework it with that partial veto authority.”
Ross gives the example of Evers' proposal to fund the stadium district that oversees the Brewers’ American Family Field. Republicans have spoken out against Evers’ version of the plan. According to Ross, “Might [Republicans put the money] in the budget, but the policy, the language of how it would work would be in a separate bill to prevent Evers from rearranging what Republicans want.”
He says that's something to watch. Another area this is being used is PFAS regulations. Republicans have proposed putting $125 million into the budget to begin to address PFAS, but the policy as to how that would work is in a trailer bill.