The every-other-year tradition of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee holding public hearings outside Madison on the next state budget began before the Internet, Zoom and COVID-19 reworked how the Capitol works.
The regional public hearings were first held in 1985, when Democrats controlled the Legislature.
Since then, they have evolved into largely show-and-tell sessions for people with titles—legislators, local officials, lobbyists—and leaders of statewide organizations who mobilize dozens, and even hundreds, of supporters who flood the events to make it appear there is widespread support for their budget priorities.
If you hope to share your personal worries, hopes or dreams with the committee’s 16 legislators—12 Republicans and four Democrats—at a hearing, here’s how to prepare:
Plan on taking a day off from work or find someone else to watch the kids for a day. Fill out a form. Wait hours for your name to be called. Expect two or three minutes to make your points, and all 16 legislators won’t be there when you do. Keep 6 feet away from others waiting to testify. And, yes, wear a mask.
The committee’s two Republican cochairs, Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born, have scheduled three April in-person hearings and one virtual session on the 2021-23 budget that must pass the Legislature and be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this summer.
Four in-person hearings were held in 2019 and six in 2017.
Republican legislative leaders have vowed to scrap the $92 billion budget Evers recommended in February and draft a much different spending plan.
The Joint Finance Committee’s public hearing schedule:
- 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, April 9, on the UW-Whitewater campus. It’s in the districts of two Democratic legislators, Sen. Janis Ringhand and Rep. Don Vruwink.
- 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, April 21, at the Hodag Dome in Rhinelander. It’s in the districts of two Republicans, Sen. Mary Felzkowski and Rep. Rob Swearingen.
- 10-a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday, April 22, on the UW-Stout campus in Menomonie. It’s in the districts of two Republicans, Sen. Rob Stafsholt and Rep. Clint Moses.
- Details of the Wednesday, April 28, virtual hearing have not yet been announced. But Born and Marklein announced a new online site for public comments on the budget:
Marklein said a first virtual hearing was added “to accommodate constituents who are unable to join us in person. While in-person testimony is most effective, I think we can make the virtual option work.”
Born said the regional hearings offer a chance to “travel the state and listen to the public ... I look forward to visiting three unique communities.”
The hearings open with committee members introducing themselves, local officials welcoming them and then testimony from officials who finesse their way to the front of the line. Time limits are waived when committee members ask follow-up questions.
The importance of the committee’s outstate hearings has also been diminished by the number of budget briefings individual committee members have held and will be holding.
One Democrat on the committee, Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, said he and another from an urban area, Rep. Greta Nuebauer, of Racine, have hosted online budget events on Wednesdays this month through the liberal group Forward Wisconsin.
“Each event has featured different (Democratic legislators) and individuals/organizations directly impacted” by the budget, Goyke said.
This Wednesday’s online Forward Wisconsin budget briefing will be on economic development, for example, he said.
Goyke added that he hopes to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by the start of Joint Finance Committee’s regional hearings. He was scheduled to get his first shot last week.
If vaccinated, “I plan to attend” the Whitewater, Rhinelander and Menomonie hearings, Goyke added. “If not, I may not.”
Other committee members, including Marklein and Felzkowski, have joined Assembly members from their districts and invited constituents to discuss budget issues.
None of this diminishes the importance of the 2011-13 state budget. It will determine state government spending on health care, K-12 public and private schools, the UW and technical college systems, property tax relief, prisons and aid to local governments.
The decades-old nickname for Joint Finance Committee regional hearings, whether they are led by Democrats or Republicans, is “roadshow.” One Internet definition of a roadshow “is a touring political or promotional campaign.”