Well, how many state budget decisions do you suppose got made over the weekend?
No, the legislature wasn't in session, and the Joint Finance Committee wasn't meeting.
But the first batch of budget decisions were quietly being made on conference calls between Republican leaders in the Senate and Assembly and co-chairs of Joint Finance. It wouldn't be surprising if the call also included Finance member Scott Jensen and maybe a few more key players.
How do we know that?
Because Assembly Co-Chair Dean Kaufert said so. This from the WisPolitics weekly report on Friday:Kaufert expects conference calls between caucus leaders and JFC members over the weekend to start nailing down some of the issues. "I think by Monday some of those decisions between the Senate and Assembly are going to start falling into place. We've got to have both sides to dance, and until we are in agreement, neither house is going to go out there too far on any of these.''
Joint Finance has had no public debate by its members on any budget items yet, although it has held public hearings and had briefings by agencies.
Voting by Joint Finance is supposed to begin on Thursday. How, you might wonder, will the committee vote on the dozens, if not hundreds, of motions if members haven't discussed them?
That's where the conference calls come in. Decisions will be made long before items ever come to a vote in Finance, as the Republican leadership wheels and deals to try to find consensus or compromise on controversial items so they can pass both houses with a minimum of messiness.
Is this legal?
Technically, maybe, if the GOPpers take care to make certain that no quorum of any committee is on the line at the same time.
But does it meet the intent of state open meetings laws? Of course not.
It flunks the smell test and may even flunk the legal test if someone (the attorney general, perhaps?) were to apply it.
Remember all the trouble the Board of Regents got into for holding conference calls with some of its executive committee members? No one was prosecuted, and whether the letter of the law was broken was in dispute, but the regents got the message and stopped the practice.
In another case, the regents had set higher salary ranges for top UW system executives in a barely publicized teleconference meeting -- but one that had met the technical requirements for public notice. After an uproar and talks with the state Dept. of Justice (DOJ) the regents rescinded the salary adjustments.
The Ozaukee County Board was admonished recently by DOJ for discussing agenda items in private e-mails outside of the meetings; those e-mails are now available to the public.
In that context, does it sound OK to make decisions on the telephone, on the weekend, without any public scrutiny?
The secrecy issue is cyclical in the legislature. It periodically becomes a big deal, but soon slips out of view again.
In the post-Watergate reform era of the mid-1970s, the state budget was being written in closed meetings by a handful of Democrats who controlled the process (the Dems had both houses and the governorship in those glory days for Democrats). The media christened them the "Secret Seven" and began to track how many hours the seven had spent in secret, with a daily box score in the newspapers, which pounded away at the issue.
One of the seven was Norman Anderson, the powerful Assembly Speaker from a safe Democratic district in Madison, who lost his seat in a stunning 1976 primary upset to a young Capitol aide named Peter Bear.
An Oshkosh pizza parlor manager, a guy named Gary Goyke, was elected to the State Senate in 1974 and came to Madison vowing to force Senate Democrats to open their caucuses. He didn't get a very warm reception from his colleagues, but the Senate caucuses did, for the most part, open up, and the Assembly later followed suit.
But that was 30 years ago, and over time people and institutions backslide. By 1999, with one house in the hands of each party, we had gotten used to the idea of then-Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and then-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala making their budget deals with each other in the back room. No one seemed to find that process unusual, let alone illegal.
Last month, the state's media celebrated Sunshine Week and devoted a considerable amount of time and space to the public's right to know. But it didn't shed much light on the legislature, where weekend conference calls, secret meetings and closed caucuses will shape the state's $50-billion budget.
By the time votes are taken in the light of day, where the public can see, the big decisions -- -the ones involving hundreds of millions of dollars -- will already have been made.
One of these days, the wheel will spin again and citizens and the media will demand more sunshine in the State Capitol.
But it looks like the 2005-07 budget will be written in the shadows.