Governor Tony Evers will deliver his State Budget Address on February 15. The speech will lay out his vision for state spending during the next two years. The fiscal debate at the State Capitol in the coming months will include what to do with an unprecedented $7.1 billion revenue surplus from the last budget period.
While the Governor’s budget speech publicly kicks off the state budget process, the address is just one step in a journey that by law must arrive at the state’s 2023-25 biennial budget by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. And the process actually started last summer.
Like for many households, creating a budget for the state includes getting input from family members about their future needs. In the state’s case, family members include all state agencies, such as the Department of Health Services and the Department of Natural Resources. Last summer the Budget Office in the Department of Administration sent notices to all state agencies asking them to report their budget requests for the coming biennium.
After agency budget requests are submitted to the Budget Office, the requests are reviewed by State Budget Director, the Secretary of the Department of Administration, and ultimately by the Governor himself. Even though members of the legislature have no role in the process up to this point, agency budget requests are made available to elected officials—and the public–via the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That enables legislators to keep track of the requests and begin to formulate their own approach to the various pieces of the budget.
All of this leads to the drafting of the Governor’s Budget Bill and the unveiling of that document during the Budget Address. The Legislature’s discussion about amending the proposed budget begins almost immediately. First stop for legislative review of the budget bill is the 16 members of the Joint Committee on Finance, a group of eight members from each house. The work of this committee includes holding statewide budget public hearings. These commence in April.
While it’s critical state residents take the opportunity to attend the scheduled, statewide hearings, it’s important to note that the public need not wait until those hearings to make their voices heard about budget concerns and priorities. You can look over budget items well in advance of those hearings and call or email legislators long before the Joint Finance Committee begins public hearings in April.
In the coming months, as the budget process takes shape, please be aware of Council priorities. Key budget areas we will be watching closely and weighing in on include transportation and digital accessibility, but there are several others we encourage you to consider advocating on. You can find information about all our budget and legislative priorities at WCBlind.org/advocacy. You can review the agency-by-agency budget requests, as well as the Governor’s proposed budget bill once it is unveiled.
You can find out who represents you in the State Assembly and State Senate at Maps.Legis.Wisconsin.gov. In addition to your own legislators, members of Joint Finance are also fair game for your advocacy communications. You can find out who is on the committee. If one of its members happens to represent your district, you have an opportunity to make an even bigger impact as a constituent.
Starting in April, the Joint Finance Committee will post the dates, times and locations of budget public hearings where members of the public may testify. You can access this information on the JFC web page as well.
“When you reach out to your state lawmakers, you play a vital role in strengthening the Council’s advocacy efforts,” says Council Executive Director Denise Jess. Denise notes that communication from constituents often carries more weight than input from professional advocates.
“You bring a more personal or ‘close to home’ perspective because you are a constituent, maybe even a neighbor who shops at the same stores as the lawmaker and attends the same community events,” says Denise. “This personalized connection can leave a big impression in the heart and mind of that lawmaker helping to influence their decisions.”
Public comment on the budget usually wraps up by May 1. That’s when the Joint Finance Committee goes into Executive Session, preparing the massive document for legislative consideration that will begin around the first of June.
Sometimes, depending on which party controls the Legislature, the budget bill produced by Joint Finance bears little resemblance to the Governor’s proposal. In his State of the State Address in January, Governor Evers tipped his hand on some priorities, including $1.5 billion of new spending on mental health services, water pollution, affordable childcare and workforce development. However, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has indicated that these items will be “dead on arrival.”
It remains to be seen what, if any, compromise between parties will take place during the spring and early summer legislative budget session. All the more reason to make your voice heard early in the process.
Once the Legislature completes its work on the budget and the bill has passed both houses, it is passed to the Governor for his signature. In Wisconsin, the Governor has broad veto power, so the bill will likely undergo many additional changes at that point in the process before becoming law.