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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Less money for state goverment, and less democracy for its citizens

There are hundreds of ways ordinary citizens can participate in the business of their local governments -- plan commissions, transportation working groups, ad hoc committees for this and that.

But under the guise of budget-trimming, eumphemized as "streamlining" and "efficiencies," there are at least four existing or proposed citizen-driven oversight boards serving Wisconsin state government in some fashion that will be weakened or eliminated. Their loss bodes badly for healthy democracy in Wisconsin.

The most obvious one is Governor Doyle's change of heart on allowing the natural resources secretary to answer to the Natural Resources Board, a board of citizen appointees, rather than be appointed by the governor him/herself. Many believe the work of the Dept. of Natural Resources has become much more politicized when the governor can run the DNR from his office, through his own appointed secretary, as opposed to a secretary working for a citizen board more attuned to the natural resource interests of the citizens.

Then there's the proposal by the dean of UW-Madison's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, proposing to essentially dismantle the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which in its 20-year history had established a solid reputation for assisting small farms and high-value agricultural enterprises. One of its unique features was a citizen advisory board of the Center's own customers. The dean apparently told the CIAS citizen board that they were ineffectual, and has said in effect that the Center itself stood in the way of the university doing its real work.

The Department of Agriculture wants to send to extinction the decades-old Land and Water Conservation Board and render it into a "council" -- a toothless chattering class of high-level agricultural and natural resource officials whom the agency makes clear in a explanatory memo it will ignore if it feels like it. The LWCB had been steered into near oblivion in recent years by the agency, but was revived recently by some members who rediscovered its valuable oversight function -- hence its placement on the government chopping block. (Full disclosure: I am a member, a governor's appointee, to the LWCB.)

Finally, in the Governor's budget is the proposed make-up of three "regional transit authorities" to be created by the Legislature to oversee raising money regionally to spend on transit projects. A Legislative Council study committee recommended that the authorities themselves -- their governing bodies -- have a broad and diverse make-up. By contrast, the Governor's budget calls for these boards to be much more narrowly defined and, in the eyes of some observers, much less democratic and unresponsive to citizens.

None of these citizen-friendly boards cost very much money, but the cost, to open government and good democratic process, is considerable. Citizen oversight of the business of their government is not about merely making bureaucrats do more work. It's an exercise of democracy we should not so readily throw away, like taking old filing cabinets to the curb.

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