June 24, 2009
The sun was setting when we began serious debate on the question: Should developers get the same tax break on farmland going into development as farmers do?
At first glance, a few lines given to us at the beginning of caucus looked like it closed a loophole in the “Use Value Assessment” law used by developers to claim the lower property tax assessment given active farms.
My urban colleagues did not want to see land, slated to be developed, benefit from a program designed to help farmers.
I argued the paragraph needed to be removed from the budget, not because I thought urban developers needed a tax break, but because the language was more far reaching than the authors and my colleagues thought. The decision was made, however, to include the new language in the budget.
On other budget questions, the Senate made substantial changes in how rural schools were funded and money was returned to counties to support county nursing homes and programs for the mentally ill. We also removed several policy items – including changes in the liability law – that had no place in the budget.
It wasn’t until two days later, after the frenzy of rushing to pass the Senate version of budget subsided, that I was able to find out in detail how the change in “Use Value” really affected our district.
Almost half of several rural townships in Trempealeau County would have been covered by the language in the budget. Many farms in these townships would be removed from the use value program. All over our Senate District land primarily used for agriculture is zoned rural “residential” and would have lost the use value assessment.
I’ve heard estimates as much as half a million acres of productive farmland would have lost the use value assessment as a result of those few sentences included by the Senate which I argued in caucus to remove.
This past week has been one of intense activity. Two days before the Senate voted on the budget, Senators received a 64 page document summarizing the Senate’s budget changes.
We spent about twenty hours during that two day period in closed caucus, without our staff, reviewing and debating the document. While conversations were civil and ideas were respected, the lack of input, by staff or constituents, limited our discussion and our knowledge of the real effects of what we were debating.
At the same time, over five hundred constituents were contacting my office asking for information or sharing details and opinions about various parts of the budget.
The budget document is loaded with complex provisions that take time to understand and explain. Each one of these affects different voters in important ways; voices need to be heard in decision making.
Looking back on last week reminds me again of why we have a public hearing process. The budget is no place for complex policy unrelated to budget and fiscal decisions.
The Legislature is not finished with this year’s budget. A Conference Committee appointed by the leaders has to reconcile the differences between the budgets passed by the Assembly and the Senate. All legislators will then have to vote either ‘aye’ or ‘no’ on the entire proposal.
I suggest the report from this Committee be made public for at least two full days before the Assembly or the Senate votes on it; giving citizens and the Legislature a chance to more fully understand what leaders are proposing.
We’ve only got one more chance to get this right and the odds of that happening will be much greater if decisions are made with all the facts on the table.