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Thursday, December 25, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 34.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Madison Common Council makes smart move on budget

Madison Common Council leadership is trying something new. It's a procedural maneuver that might make your eyes glaze over, but if it works it could mean something very significant beyond just this year's budget.

The council's president and pro tem are putting together a comprehensive amendment to the mayor's budget that attempts to capture the concerns and initiatives of a wide range of council members.

That may sound like common sense, but it's never been done before. The amendment would turn back the worst remaining items in Mayor Soglin's budget. His plan to bus homeless people out of the city and his lip synching video have already been voted off the budget island by the Board of Estimates.

The super amendment would replace ninety percent of Soglin's latest cut to Overture as well as repeal the mayor's unnecessary bus fare increase and his $150,000 biodigester study. It does all that without significantly increasing taxes over what he already had.

It's a good plan, though I would have restored more to Overture because this still leaves the city well short of the $2 million commitment it made to the donors who paid off Overture's $28 million debt two years ago.

But what's significant about this even beyond the specifics of the amendment is that it rationalizes the process and would, over time if this was repeated, make the council a stronger player.

What typically happens is that several council members offer their own amendments on budget night. Each one is debated separately without regard to how the amendments would impact the bottom line as a group. This leads to a very long council meeting and often two very long council meetings.

If the super amendment process works like it should, all of that will have been worked out in advance and there will be at least eleven votes (a majority) for the omnibus amendment. Everyone (except the mayor, probably) will be happy and they can all adjourn for a cocktail.

Other bodies, like the Dane County Board, have relatively short budget meetings. That's because all this work is done in committee before the budget ever reaches the board floor.

It has been a quirk of the Madison Common Council culture that this kind of rational process is viewed with suspicion. I suppose that's because this process necessitates some closed door (but legal) discussions. In a healthier process, a super amendment wouldn't have to be cobbled together behind closed doors. It could be worked out at the Board of Estimates. But that didn't happen this year as the board caved to Soglin on key points, so the comprehensive amendment makes sense for now.

In the end, a comprehensive amendment would strengthen the council's hand with relation to the mayor, particularly if there were a veto-proof fourteen votes for the amended budget.

We could end up with a much improved, more progressive budget and a council that is effectively standing up to a very conservative mayor.

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