Key lawmakers said Thursday they are working to prevent use of a controversial maneuver legislators have deployed to add major policy changes to the state budget at the last minute with little or no public scrutiny.
The maneuver, known as the 999 motion, was what lawmakers used two years ago just before the July 4 weekend to try to drastically limit public access to government documents, and four years ago it surfaced in the middle of the night.
A key feature of the motion is that the lawmakers who sponsor policy components don’t attach their names to the proposals — unlike amendments that are brought up in committee and on the floor.
Joint Finance Committee co-chairpersons Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, told reporters the committee is trying to avoid introducing the budget motion during the process of writing the 2017-19 state spending plan.
“We’re trying to stay away from that,” Nygren said of the motion.
The motion is typically a single, large package of proposals that budget-writing committee members vote to put into the state budget. There is typically little time for lawmakers or the public to review everything in the package.
Technical fixes intended
It originally was supposed to be used to introduce technical fixes for the budget bill. But it has been increasingly used to add controversial policy measures to the budget before the bill is taken up on the Assembly and Senate floors.
At the end of the 2015-17 budget cycle, for example, the motion included a proposal that would have overhauled the state’s public records law to keep private nearly every document created by state and local lawmakers. The proposal was met with incredible public backlash and lawmakers reversed course.
Four years ago, the motion was introduced in the middle of the night on the last day of budget committee deliberations and passed early the next morning after hours of debate.
When asked if the 999 motion would reappear this budget cycle, Darling said “I hope not.”
Finance committee member Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, two years ago said he wanted to require budget motions that come before the committee to be made public for at least 24 hours before the committee voted on them.
Kooyenga, vice-chairman of the committee, was one of two Republican members who voted to overhaul the public records law and later said they would not have if they had been given enough time to digest the motion.
Kooyenga also said last year he was considering a proposal to permit lawmakers outside of the committee to sponsor budget motions — a step that could help link budget proposals to the lawmakers behind them, but both ideas failed to gain traction. He did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Currently, only the 16 members of the Joint Finance Committee may sponsor budget motions, though many more lawmakers are involved in the process behind the scenes. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, sought the proposal to overhaul the public records law, for example, but his authorship was identified only after the Wisconsin State Journal obtained emails regarding the proposal under the records law.
The number of proposals included in the motion has ballooned by 440 percent since 2011. According to a recent column from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, in the five budget bills before 2011, the 999 motion averaged five pages and 15 proposals. The motion expanded to 11 pages with 54 proposals in the 2011-13 bill and to 24 pages with 81 proposals in the last state budget.
Bill Lueders, information council president, said he was “jazzed” to hear that the committee members were considering scrapping the motion that he said has been used “abusively” by lawmakers in recent sessions to move proposals through “they knew couldn’t withstand the light of day.”
“If they do (bar the 999 motion) people ought to stand up and give them credit. It’s the right thing to do,” Lueders said. “No law should be able to be passed or introduced without the fingerprints of its author or the identification of its author.”