On February 16, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers will introduce his 2021 biennial budget, laying the foundation for what our state will look like over the next two years. The budget is not only a document that determines how taxpayer dollars are spent — it is a representation of our collective values and a blueprint of our shared goals. Questions over whether we should continue overinvesting in the corrections system and local police departments at the expense of public schools — or deciding to invest greater resources into special education and healthcare programs — are as much about the budget as they are about our moral principles. The budget process, although complicated and tedious, is what translates the will of the people into the work of the government, defining what we want our public officials to prioritize.

Since the budget is ultimately a declaration of what the people care about, it goes without saying that we all must have a hand in shaping it. Here’s an overview of how the budget is passed, what you should be paying attention to, and how you can influence what’s in it.

How does the budget work?

Before a budget is even proposed, state actors and agencies are expected to weigh in and make expenditure requests based on how much funding they estimate they will need. These requests are fielded by the governor and his administration, and the fiscal projections are drawn on to draft the first iteration of the budget. After the governor unveils his official budget, it’s taken up by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which has the authority to make revisions, amendments, and offer entirely new proposals. At this stage, public hearings are convened,  where Wisconsinites are allowed to listen to disputes between officials, impart their own insights and make their voices heard.

Once the hearings are complete, the JFC is allowed to put forward its own budget, which are then contested, scrutinized and voted on by each chamber of the legislature respectively. After earning approval from the legislature, the governor can veto the whole thing (at which point they start again), or sign the whole thing, or  make line-item vetoes and enact the bill into law.

For a more detailed look at the legislative process, check out our partners the Wisconsin Budget Project Toolkit, which features a range of budget-related resources. 

Public hearings: What You Can Do

The dates and locations of the Joint Finance Committee hearings are usually announced about two weeks after the Governor’s budget is proposed, and about two weeks before the date of the first hearing. They usually take place during business hours on weekdays, but sometimes the chair allows testimony into the evening.  Our understanding is that the hearings will be in person despite the ongoing pandemic. 

Members of the public register, then wait their turn. Once called forward, members of the public usually get two minutes each to speak. Large groups are sometimes given  three minutes. Posters, signs, etc. are not allowed. Groups that speak as one, wear matching shirts, etc., are said to have greater impact. Speakers are highly encouraged to submit their written testimony into the record in addition to speaking.

The ACLU is working with partner organizations across the state to develop virtual trainings for people interested in testifying at the Joint Finance Committee hearings.  Our first one will be on Saturday, January 23rd from 10am to 1pm.  More will be announced later.

Our Budget Priorities: ACLU of Wisconsin Criminal Justice Reform Budget Requests

Close a prison
The largest budget savings to meet the state’s deficits would be realized by closing a facility.  Green Bay Correctional Facility is an outdated and awful place and there have been Republican-led efforts for several years to attempt to close it.  By ensuring that the Department of Corrections classifies incarcerated people appropriately and moves individuals who are classified as medium or minimum to other facilities, space could be freed in the maximum facility.

Treatment instead of prison
Expand the Earned Release and TAD programs.  If funding can be provided to counties to expand treatment and mental health courts, people who are experiencing other challenges can get help for those issues rather than just being locked up. Polling has indicated that people across the state are highly in favor of people with addiction or mental health issues getting appropriate treatment rather than incarceration.  Our partners at WISDOM have asked for a $15 million increase in TAD funding in the next biennial budget.

Raise the Age Wisconsin is an outlier, being one of the four states that still charges 17 year olds as adults and pushes them into the adult system.  Young people should be under the Department of Youth and Families jurisdiction, not the Department of Corrections.  Ultimately, it remains crucial that adjudicated youth are brought back to their home communities, where research shows they will have better outcomes than being sent away to larger facilities like Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake.

Policing Data Collection
Collect and regularly release racial and other demographic data on traffic and pedestrian stops, frisks, and searches throughout their jurisdictions.  This is the kind of information that would have been collected under 2009 Wisconsin Act 28 - a law that was subsequently repealed.   Without taking this step, law enforcement agencies will never identify the scope of the problem, much less remedy the levels of distrust among residents of color or identify patterns and practices of systemic racial profiling or misconduct by officers.

Debtor’s Prison
End the use of driver's license suspensions and warrants or incarceration as debt collection tools for unpaid ticket debt.  These debt collection tools harm hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites annually and disproportionately impact people of color and people experiencing poverty.  When courts issue warrants or order driver's license suspensions to try to collect debt, they harm the employability of that individual, reducing their ability to pay. Courts should no longer have access to these harmful debt collection tools as they have become a prominent way in which racial and class inequalities have been reproduced and reinforced.

Justice Reinvestment Funds need to be invested into communities of color that have been systemically torn apart by the criminal legal system. Funding programs in the communities harmed by mass incarceration can help to address some of the root causes of the issues that drive our prison population.