Susan Kasten
June 05, 2022

How a Nonpartisan Excels in a Partisan World

After a 50-year career in Wisconsin state government, Bob Lang’65 still commands respect from both sides of the aisle.

The first time Bob Lang’65 entered Wisconsin’s State Capitol, he was a Beloit College junior on a field trip. He and his classmates were in Madison with government professor Warner Mills, who arranged for them to meet the state’s governor and attorney general.

Lang found himself drawn to the workings of government, and he was impressed by the Capitol building’s grandeur. At the time, he thought he might run for political office.

“Someday, I’m going to work in that building,” Lang recalls saying as he and his classmates jumped in a van headed back to Beloit.

And he has worked in the Capitol — for 50 years — but not as an elected official.

Instead, Lang occupies a rare position in government: He is apolitical.

He leads the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a State of Wisconsin service agency that provides fiscal and program information and analyses to the legislature, staffs the Joint Committee on Finance, and focuses on the state’s biennial budget.

Lang likens the bureau’s work to that of the Congressional Budget Office.

He is a respected nonpartisan who takes to heart the bureau’s mission, which is written into state statutes and kept top of mind for him and his team.

“The central tenet of the bureau is nonpartisanship,” he says. “Our work for individual legislators is confidential. If you’re a legislator, Republican or Democrat, and you ask the bureau for something, you can rest assured we’ll do it for you, but we won’t share it with others,” Lang says.

“When we hire folks, we spend a lot of time on what nonpartisanship means, including how we function, things we don’t do, and organizations we don’t belong to. It’s part of the deal,” Lang says.

He credits Wisconsin’s legislative leadership for keeping the bureau out of the political fray.

“I’ve been through Republicans in charge, Democrats in charge; Republicans in one house, Democrats in the other, and every possible combination, and the leaders have — regardless of party — insisted that nonpartisanship of the bureau be maintained,” he says. “The legislators realize that on any given issue, it may be beneficial for them if we swung to one side or the other. But once we do that, our credibility suffers, and it affects the institution.”

The Wisconsin state budget process is the bureau’s greatest responsibility. After the governor prepares an executive budget every other year, it is presented to the legislature, then, by law, it goes to the finance committee, which the bureau staffs. “First we do a layperson’s summary,” Lang explains, adding that the budget is a voluminous document of 1,200 to 1,500 pages.

Lang and his staff brief the committee and other legislators, then, with members of the finance committee, take the proposed budget on the road, visiting high school gyms, technical colleges and universities, and other public locations in Wisconsin. These hearings draw hundreds of people and are designed to further citizens’ understanding and elicit feedback.

Lang is quick to credit others for the bureau’s effectiveness, but Wisconsin officials recently singled him out for maintaining civility and evidence-based decision making when it comes to the state’s purse.

During the February legislative session, the speaker recessed the assembly so members could be present when Lang received the inaugural Tommy G. Thompson Distinguished Public Leadership Award, named for the longtime Wisconsin governor. The award recognizes Wisconsinites who have committed themselves to public service, worked tirelessly to advance sound public policy, and exhibited virtuous leadership.

“He is the standard bearer for collegiality, civility, and nonpartisan leadership here in Wisconsin,” Susan Yackee said at the ceremony. Yackee, one of the people who nominated Lang for the award, directs the University of Wisconsin’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.

“It’s both parties, both chambers, outside the building, inside the building, in the administration — you are the gold standard,” Speaker Robin Vos said to Lang.

Wisconsin State Senator Howard Marklein, a Republican, says he and his staff often debate whether Lang is a Republican or a Democrat. No one knows, and that’s exactly the point.

In his remarks, former Gov. Tommy Thompson put it more plainly: “How in the hell can anybody spend 50 years in the Capitol and have everybody say nice things about them? There’s only one person, and that’s the individual that we’re honoring.”

Lang traces his public service interest to his family. He grew up in Menasha, Wis., where his parents were dedicated community volunteers. After majoring in history at Beloit, Lang truly enjoyed three years teaching high school social studies in Muskego, Wis., until he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. When he returned home, he focused on earning his master’s degree to accelerate his teaching career.

But when a good opportunity opened for an analyst at the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, he took it with the intention of staying a couple of years. That was in 1971. He became the bureau’s director in 1977 and found the work so interesting, he spent his career there.

“I like being in the Capitol, working as a non-partisan, seeing what Democrats are doing and what Republicans are doing, and helping both of them trying to get where they want to be,” he says.

Lang appreciates the variety inherent in his position, but the people who surround him are what’s really kept him at the bureau all these years — the lawmakers and the 30 analysts on his team, including Jere Bauer’84, a fellow Beloit alumnus he hired.

“For five decades I’ve worked with an institution that I respect and with people I admire,” he says. “It’s been an inspiration to me to be in the company of individuals who have had the courage to step forward to represent the citizens of this state at the seat of government.”

Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.

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