Only in the Midwest: A look at the broad budgetary powers given to the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No. 9: September 2011

In 1911, lawmakers in Wisconsin approved a flurry of sweeping and innovative proposals that distinguish that year’s legislative session, even a century later, as one of the most significant in the state’s history.

Among the measures enacted that year were the nation’s first state income tax law, the first state worker’s compensation law, a minimum-wage requirement for women, a bill regulating child labor and another establishing a new Industrial Commission.

But one of the most enduring legacies of the 1911 session was a measure that established a new joint legislative committee charged with overseeing the state budget process. It was vested with broad authority to consider all bills related to expenditures, revenue or taxation prior to their passage by the legislature.

One hundred years later, Wisconsin remains the only U.S. state to have assigned such broad statutory authority to a single joint committee. (Most other states distribute responsibilities on revenue and spending measures to multiple committees or between two legislative chambers.)

As a result, the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance is arguably one of the most powerful state legislative committees in the country.

Its principal function is to conduct a detailed review of the governor’s biennial budget recommendations and, ultimately, to play the lead role in crafting the legislature’s budget bill.

The committee is also empowered to:

  • review all other revenue and spending bills;
  • permit the legislative consideration of fiscal measures prior to the passage of the biennial budget (by attaching an emergency clause to them);
  • supplement agency appropriations following passage of the budget;
  • transfer funds between appropriations and programs; and
  • adjust the number of authorized staff positions for state agencies.

For the past three decades, the committee has had 16 members: eight representatives and eight senators, with co-chairs designated by the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.

Despite the even number of committee members, as well as rules that require the committee’s co-chairs to agree before any bill may be considered, the committee process works well in practice: The Joint Committee has never failed to produce a budget recommendation for the legislature’s consideration, even when the Assembly and Senate have been controlled by different parties.

According to Bob Lang, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau (which provides staff support to the Joint Committee on Finance), the committee’s co-chairs understand that “their power depends on their ability to work together,” a factor that tends to foster compromise. Republican Rep. Robin Vos, who currently co-chairs the committee (with Republican Sen. Alberta Darling), concurs.

“[It] requires compromise and consensus much earlier in the process than in other states with more traditional models,” he says.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller, a former Joint Committee co-chair, agrees that the panel’s composition tends to promote cooperation between members, although he notes that this dynamic doesn’t always translate to the full legislature.

Miller credits the Legislative Fiscal Bureau for the committee’s track record of success in Wisconsin. Reliance upon a nonpartisan professional fiscal staff, he says, is “the key reason [the process] works as well as it does.”