The Wisconsin Legislature: Bills and spending

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How can I find a particular bill?

The Wisconsin state Legislature runs a robust website for past and current legislation. But there are challenges to its use.

  • If you know the bill number: Enter it into search boxes at lower left side of page.
  • If you only know keywords or subject: Go to the menu option “Legislation” in the left hand column and pick “Current session.” That will take you to a webpage that allows general searches. You can type in a bill number or a subject or keywords and find files.
  • If you just want to poke around: Go to “Legislation,” then “Current session,” then click categories like “Assembly bills,” “Senate bills” and “Senate Joint Resolutions” to get to lists of all legislation in a given session. This allows for much deeper searches than the list that appears on the right of the “Current session” page, which just lists recently introduced legislation.

To see what has happened: For any given bill, the most useful place to go is the bill text and history, which contains links to the text, amendments, fiscal estimates, committee referrals, and Wisconsin Ethics Commission records on lobbying registrants and activity. For some bills there is a link under the acronym ROCP, for “Records of Committee Proceedings,” which will show who registered and testified at any public meeting, and any committee votes.

To understand what is being proposed:

The bill text will include an more-or-less plain English analysis of what it will do by the Legislative Reference Bureau. This is not updated if the bill is amended in the course of the process. For that, you must check the individual amendments or the file of the law as enacted.

To keep tabs on pending legislation: The Legislature allows users to sign up for notifications about activity on particular bills, and by subject, lawmaker or committee. Just go the Legislature’s bill notification page and create an account. You can go back and manage notifications at any time, adding or erasing bills or categories to track. The site will send an email notifying you of any activity — new or withdrawn cosponsors, committee hearings and any votes.

What else can I learn about past and pending legislation?

Written testimony and other documentation submitted at public hearings on various bills are archived online. The way to find these for legislative sessions from 1989-90 to 2015-16 is by going to Legislature’s web portal for “Session archives,” then pick a session year under the category “Public Hearing Records.” It is necessary to search by committee and then find the bill by its number. Don’t know what committee heard what bill when? This should all be clear from the “Record of Committee Proceedings,” which is part of the “Bill text and history” for each bill.

Beginning in 2015, the responsibility for archiving hearing materials, included submitted testimony, transferred to the Wisconsin Legislative Council, a state service agency. The Legislative Council has these materials for the 2013-14 session archived here. Bill hearings materials for current and recent sessions can be found here. The change makes it easier to find these records since they are archived by bill number.

To find drafting documents, which show how a bill’s language was altered and, at times, which players were involved in this process (sometimes including outside special interest groups), go to the Legislature’s “Session Archive” and search under “Drafting Files.” These are available on the site for past sessions going back to 1999-2000. These drafting files are no longer commonly posted during a given session but they remain public records that can be requested from the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Finally, in recent years many legislative hearings and all floor sessions have been recorded by WisconsinEye. The best way to find past videos is to use the “Advanced search” function on the left-hand side. Searches can be done by date, committee and bill number.

How can I track state agency spending?

In early 2014, the administration of Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a long-promised new website, OpenBook Wisconsin, which tracks spending by state agencies, including the University of Wisconsin. The site is still not fully operational, and there are limits as to what information is available. But it is a good resource for tracking expenditures, especially if you know the vendor and year they are made. Searches can be done using just one field at a time — agency, category or vendor. You can increase results by using the search function “contains” for the key word, instead of the default “starts with.”

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