GREEN BAY — Every two years, the new Wisconsin legislature that fills the Senate and Assembly chambers is documented in what are called Blue Books. The books have been printed by the state at taxpayer expense every two years dating back to 1852.
"I think it serves a valuable purpose for the citizens to know more about the government," said Stephen Miller, Legislative Reference Bureau Chief. "That has been the apparent intent of it for well over 100 years."
Miller heads up the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, which publishes the book. Located across the street from the Capitol in Madison, staff there are already working on the next Blue Book that will go to print in the spring.
"There are several people who work on it for about a year, compiling statistics and tables, and laying out the photographs and collecting information, so it does take some time," Miller said.
Each publication has biographies of the legislators, and facts and figures about elections, departments and committees involved in state government. But it also includes various arcane statistical information, such as the state's highest points geographically (the top spot is Timms Hill in Price County). Or how about a list of Wisconsin's state symbols? The state insect is the honey bee. It even highlights four pages of Wisconsin's famous citizens. Guess what Ole Evinrude invented?
The Blue Book is so important that its publication is mandated by law. In fact, the state statute even details who the books should go to. County clerks, sheriffs and a whole list of public officials are sent a copy. And some get a whole lot more, all at taxpayer expense.
State Rep. Chad Weininger (R-Green Bay), like every other member of the state Assembly, received 350 copies of the Blue Book after he was elected in 2010. State Senators get 600. Weininger just won re-election, so he'll receive 350 copies of the updated Blue Book next year when it's ready.
"That is a clear example of government wasting money and legislators wasting money," Weininger said.
How much money? In 2010, the state contracted with a publisher to print 64,600 Blue Books at a cost of $328,000. If you'd like to buy one, you can order it on the state website for $7.30 each plus shipping. But very few are sold, since the bulk of them go to state legislators who are able to then give them away to constituents for free. A perk, if you will.
"This is one of those sacred cows," said State Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva). "You don't touch the Blue Book around here because the politicians in Madison like to use them to send things out to their constituents, but I really don't see the value in the book anymore."
So in his first term, August introduced a bill to eliminate the costly printing of the Blue Book, since for the past several years, the entire Blue Book can be
downloaded online for free. And August himself has not witnessed any real demand among his constituents to even obtain a copy of the Blue Book.
"I don't have constituents clamoring for them," August said. "They don't contact my office and say, 'hey, can you please send me one of those great Blue Books?' It really ends up being a paperweight."
If it even gets that far. Both August and Weininger say many of the Blue Books have an even worse fate.
A number of them get thrown in the garbage.
"Yeah, absolutely," August said. "It's one of the big mysteries around here how offices deal with their Blue Books when they have a lot of extras."
"There is a lot of waste going on in Madison, and unfortunately, there are people who get 300, 400 Blue Books and they sit on them in offices and at the end of the year they just throw them out. I think that's very wasteful," Weininger said.
In addition to Blue Books, the state also prints up folded Wisconsin maps. And they're given away for free. The Department of Tourism sent FOX 11 one at taxpayer expense. But like the Blue Books, most of the maps are distributed to members of the legislature - they each get 500 - so they can give them away to constituents.
Over the last two years, 1.7 million maps were printed at a cost of $250,000. The maps are also required to be printed and distributed in bulk, according to state statute. Even though anyone with GPS or a cell phone with internet service can call up directions to anywhere they want to go.
"The state has been printing maps and Blue Books for years and years and years and traditionally state lawmakers have been given them to constituents or people on request. It is a perk, in a sense" said Todd Berry of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
But Berry isn't critical of the expense. When it comes to the Blue Book, he gets one every year. He considers it a reference book and supports its continued printing.
"There's no question that new technology allows one to consult individual pages or tables online," Berry said. "The problem is, I think, it has much broader use and that is for historical research and so forth."
The Legislative Reference Bureau is a non-partisan agency, so its officials are not taking sides on whether it comes to spending taxpayer money to continue to print the Blue Book. Right now, it prints the book only because it's state law.
"I don't have a personal stake in it," Miller said. "I'm trying to follow the law and administer the statute as it's written."
August is willing to work out a legislative compromise. He says maybe take orders from legislators and print fewer books. Last year, he returned all 350 of his copies.
"Is this the biggest budget priority? Clearly it's not, but it's important, I feel" August said.
While the bill did not go very far last session, August says he's not giving up on the taxpayer and plans to reintroduce legislation next year.
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