Monday, June 15, 2009

Under Cover Budgeting

One of the more frustrating parts of my job is that my schedule is often at the mercy of politicians and policymakers, and they are NOT notorious for being punctual. Most of the time that's okay, because I'm not notorious for being punctual either.

As a great man once wrote, and then I bastardized, "A reporter is never late. Nor is he early. Instead, he arrives precisely when he means to."

However, when a city council debate has stretched on for hours and everybody wants their turn to talk, but nobody's really saying anything and it's getting on toward my bed time, I can occasionally get a little peeved. As much as I would sometimes like to, I can't bail out when the policymakers get long-winded, because then we don't get the story. And so, I'm stuck.

But I would rather be stuck in a sixteen hour budget hearing than be stood up by my elected officials. Unfortunately, it seems Wisconsin's state lawmakers have opted to combine both approaches, and it's more than just an annoyance for reporters. It's bad for every Wisconsin citizen.

I've only been the direct victim of our state legislature's heel-dragging once this year, and it made me want to pick a legislator at random and punch them in the face. I was assigned to cover a portion of the Joint Finance Committee's hearings on the budget. The hearing was scheduled to begin at 10:00 in the morning. I figured given the legislature's record of late, I could show up at 2:00 and catch plenty of action.

I was wrong. The JFC had not yet convened at 2:00. I spent two hours of my afternoon sitting in their chambers waiting for them to get underway before uttering a string of cusswords a nearby lobbyist thought was directed at him and storming out of the capitol.

That hearing didn't happen on that particular day. It was rescheduled for noon the next day. It finally got underway at 5:30 that evening. I didn't care. Our news director had decided to rely on secondhand sources for the remainder of our state budget coverage. With only two bodies in the newsroom on afternoons, I think she made the right call too. It certainly wouldn't have been a good call to halve our news coverage strength and wrack up overtime to cover one story that might not have even happened.

The problem is that if pulling coverage on the state budget proceedings was the right call for our newsroom, it was the right call for a lot of other newsrooms as well.

And the delays in addressing the budget aren't because State Sen. Fred Risser has gotten turned around wandering in the wrong wing of the capitol. Every minute the start of these meetings is delayed is a minute lawmakers are caucusing, doing the nitty-gritty work of negotiating a budget behind closed doors instead of in open session where the public and their watchdogs can follow along with every step.

How did Wisconsin's state budget wind up with plans to allow illegal immigrants to get proxy driver's licenses attached to it? How did a 75-cent monthly fee on cell phone users get the thumbs up, and how did it become okay for oil companies to pass on some of their tax burden to regular folks at the pump? Gosh, I really wish I could tell you, but those decisions were made without public or media oversight in a closed caucus.

That leaves 132 grown-up children unsupervised in a $62.2 billion candy store, and that should be enough to alarm any Wisconsin citizen, politically ambivalent or not.

And if by chance a member of the public had wanted to sound off on a particular budget item, they'd have had to hang around the state capitol for a couple of days straight, waiting for the body to convene at its own leisure. That's no way to involve the citizenry in government.

There's a reason lawmakers are required to give the public notice listing exact start times well in advance of any kind of meeting. Wisconsin's closed caucus system violated the spirit of those laws, and it needs to go.


Emily said...

This is pretty infuriating. Our budget process is so far out of whack, I suspect nothing short of a complete overhaul of the system--including an entirely new Assembly--could fix things.

Cynthia said...

Dusty, I should've known you'd be there! I was talking to my friend Paul on GChat, who was also stuck at the capitol all day. Meanwhile, I was exchanging emails with our state capitol reporter, Shawn Johnson, who also was going crazy waiting for the meeting to begin. When he found out I had a friend in the chambers, he went to introduce himself to Paul. then he came back and emailed me, "Do you know anyone else up here? I'm going crazy and need to do anything to maintain my sanity!" I couldn't think of anyone else I would know that'd be there.

Next time that happens, I shall point him to Dustin Christopher! Are you always covering those things? I'll text you next time just to make sure you're under the dome. :)

Dustin Christopher said...

I'm out there sometimes... Depends on what's going on, really...