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By Dave Umhoefer April 29, 2011

In repair bill and full budget, policy items were included

Gov. Scott Walker"s campaign pledge to keep "policy and pork” items out of the state budget received little attention during the 2010 race.

It was one of several reform promises Walker made regarding the internal workings of a state government Walker contended had fallen into troubling habits that did not function to serve the people.

Indeed, Republicans long complained that former Gov. Jim Doyle and Democrats used the budget to advance policy items. For evidence, they routinely turned to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau as the final -- and unquestioned -- arbiter of such matters.

We agree they are in the best position to declare what is -- and isn"t -- a budgetary matter.

So, let"s return to the promise, which has received a whole lot of attention in the first few months of Walker"s administration.

The reason: Walker"s first budget bill, the "repair” legislation he offered in February 2011, contained the politically explosive move to curb the collective bargaining power of public employees.

Did the bill contain any nonfiscal policy items?

In a Feb. 14 memo, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau -- which routinely publishes a list of budget provisions it deems as policy -- identified nine such items, including: sharp restrictions on what unions could bargain; the repeal of all bargaining rights for University of Wisconsin System faculty and staff;  and several items removing positions from civil service.

Also in the bill were the health and retirement contribution increases that Walker sought to impose on state and local workers through the bill. Those were clearly fiscal and were assigned a savings figure by the fiscal bureau.

After Senate Democrats went AWOL, the bill got split into two separate pieces by Republicans -- one approved by lawmakers on March 9 and 10, 2011, and the second OK"d on April 5, 2011.

The first budget fix (Act 10) included some items that did have a fiscal impact -- mostly the increases in the employee health and retirement contribution. The estimated total savings from the bill: $37.4 million.

But that budget fix also included the move to limit bargaining to wages, the requirement that state employee unions stand for annual recertification votes, the voluntary union dues and the repeal of bargaining rights at UW -- and other nonfiscal policy items.

When Walker signed the bill March 11, he left intact those nonfiscal items.

Indeed, those items dominated that bill.

The second repair bill, signed by Walker on April 6, essentially brought back elements of the original bill that had been removed to allow it to be passed in March without the absent Democratic senators.

The two repair bills -- which covered the remainder of the fiscal year ending in July 2011 -- are not the only basis on which to evaluate Walker"s promise.

On March 1, 2011, Walker introduced a two-year budget plan covering 2011-"13.

In its memo on that budget proposal, the fiscal bureau identified more than 45 "non-fiscal policy items.”

They included major changes in public financing of campaigns for Supreme Court justice, policies on contraceptives for teenage girls, water-pollution rules, private choice school funding and enrollment, as well as policies related to the university system and transportation.

The Legislature"s budget-review committee, led by Republicans, removed some of those items from the budget when they began examining it in April.

Walker has not specifically disputed the fiscal bureau memos, but has argued that taxpayers will save money in the long haul from some of the collective bargaining reforms.

Similarly, regarding his biennial budget, his office has said the policy changes will have some fiscal impact down the road.

But, pressed under oath on April 14, 2011, while testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives committee examining state government finances, Walker acknowledged that at least one provision -- the one on annual union recertification -- "doesn"t save any” money.

Asked for the governor"s view on whether the promise has been kept, spokesman Cullen Werwie said via email: "There are no pork projects, and the policy items we believe have a fiscal impact.”

It remains to be seen what policy items will remain in the 2011-"13 budget when lawmakers send it to Walker -- and whether he strips those out.

But there is no dispute who put them there originally -- in the two-year budget or in the earlier budget-repair bill. Indeed, the measure the GOP has used to criticize Democrats now works against the Republican governor.

So does this Walk-O-Meter item: It scores out as a Promise Broken.

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