Catch-and-release budgeting (AUDIO)

Every once in awhile at the state Capitol, some halfhearted discussion takes place about ending the practice of inserting policy items into the state budget bill. Nothing ever comes of it because there are so many swell ideas out there that lawmakers just can’t resist the temptation to insert some of their favorites into the spending plan.

This time around Republicans control the Joint Finance Committee, so they get to pick which items get to circumvent the tedious bill writing and introduction process by way of the budget, and Democrats get to fume over it. Hence Wednesday’s finance committee action on a motion to establish a catch-and-release only bass fishing season, from early March to early May, for parts of the state that do not have a continuous open season for bass fishing.

“No one likes to fish more than I do, but I will be opposing this, because we have a process,” said Senator Bob Wirch of Racine. “We have a Conservation Congress that votes on seasons out there, and lakes all over the state. These are sportsmen, but somehow, Joint Finance knows better than those sportsmen.”

“Maybe this is a good idea, maybe it’s a horrible idea, but it certainly has no place being slipped into the state budget with less than five minutes review,” said Representative Cory Mason of Racine. (Actually, they spent about 10 minutes on the issue.) “This is ridiculous. I understand that there’s policy that makes its way into the budget, but come on, really?”

“We’re messing around with the bass fishing season, something that has absolutely nothing with creating jobs, nothing to do with the state budget,” said Representative Jon Richards of Milwaukee. “Does this deal with large mouth bass, small mouth bass, rock bass? I’m confused.”

AUDIO: Joint Finance bass debate (10:00)

The motion’s author, Joint Finance co-chairman, Representative John Nygren of Marinette, thought he detected a note of jesting¬†in Richards’ question, despite the fact that he’d earlier asked a similar question of legislative staff. “I’m not sure if you looked the economic impact of fishing and tourism in our state, especially up north. You may mock this, but when you get in the northern part of our state, there is no other industry that employs more people than tourism, and fishing is a big part of that. This may be funny to you, but there’s a lot of people this isn’t funny to. This is true economic development for the northern part of our state.”

Senator Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse was the last Democrat to weigh in on the issue, wisely steering clear of a pork barrel reference in favor of the always serviceable Christmas tree metaphor.”We’re at that point in the budget deliberations that it’s become a Christmas tree and we’re continuing to hang ornaments on the Christmas tree. I just wish that we could seek a little bit of policy discipline.” (Maybe next biennium, Senator. Hope springs eternal.)

Later on, Richards asked the Legislative Reference Bureau how many ornaments – I mean policy items – were added to the budget. (Andrew Beckett, who normally covers Joint Finance, clued me in to the fact that this happens almost every time the committee meets.) The answer, from LRB Director Bob Lang: 11 items added and one removed for a running total of 26.

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