The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of ’09-’10 at the Capitol

The MacIver Institute’s Brett Healy aptly described the end of the legislative session as the “Silly Season.”

Silly Season came to a crashing halt on Thursday as the State Senate adjourned without taking up many of the major items of the Democratic agenda.

With the close of the legislature also came the effective end of Governor Jim Doyle’s power in office. Doyle ruled out calling a special session of the legislature, saying that he only believed in doing it if the bills had a chance of passing. It’s a tacit admission the global warming bill, the online voter registration bill, and the proposed regional transit authorities are dead for this year.

The legislature will only meet briefly in May to consider vetoes, technical corrections and state employee contracts.

When Clint Eastwood would ride into a town in the spaghetti westerns, everyone knew there would be trouble. Now that “Silly Season” is over, the legislature rode out of town leaving a trail of bodies in its wake.  Let’s take a moment to assess the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good:

This was in desperate short supply during the legislative session just ended. Good was more likely found in what did not pass than what passed.

The Democrats did not pass the global warming bill, also known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would have imposed new mandates for renewable energy. This bill, the result of the governor’s Global Warming Task Force, would have resulted in thousands of jobs lost and higher utility bills for everyone over a ten-year period.

The legislature also avoided the passage of changes to our election laws to allow the Government Accountability Board (GAB) to use the state drivers license list to put people on the voter registration list without their knowledge, with the registrations available for confirmation online. The same bill would have allowed the GAB to share that information with ACORN-like organizations.

Despite majorities in both houses, the Democrats were also unable to find the votes to create new taxing authorities unaccountable to the voters to fund trains and buses. State Representative Leah Vukmir’s amendment to require a referendum was essential in killing the bill.

There was one positive moment when the legislature clarified their smoking ban to allow taverns to have smoking-allowed patios as long as two walls are open to the outside. It’s still confusing, raising the question why they didn’t just repeal the smoking ban.

The Bad:

The legislature conducts more nocturnal activity than former President Bill Clinton. The public deserves a legislature that conducts business in broad daylight.

Speaking of loving the nightlife, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan’s relationship with a lobbyist for the payday loan industry gave the public new lessons on how a bill does not become a law. Sheridan’s relationship and conflict of interest attracted more coverage than the particulars of the bill itself.

On education, the legislature did not enact any meaningful reforms this term. However, they were able to spend a great deal of time on reforming the mascot names for local schools instead of trusting local school boards to make those decisions. Perhaps someone should ask the Democrats if they plan on being sensitive to Native Americans by canceling their dinners named after President Andrew Jackson.

As the clock was running out, the Democrats essentially punted and put more power in the hands of the State Superintendent for Public Instruction, a position traditionally under the thumb of the teachers union. This was the substitute plan for giving control of the Milwaukee Public Schools to the Milwaukee Mayor’s office. Neither plan offered any program for reform and therefore did not help the state’s Race to the Top application.

The legislature also did not do anything to lift the cap on enrollment for the state’s online charter schools, even though the evidence is in that these schools do work. But we did learn the state lied on the application for Race to the Top funding saying there were no limits on enrollment in the state’s charter schools. Perhaps someday the legislature’s actions will match their words.

BadgerCare Plus Basic was created to handle the waiting list from the BadgerCare Core Plan. This big government solution will likely fall short of its goals and would not be as effective as reducing the state mandate burden on insurance providers selling policies to low-income people.

The Ugly:

Governor Doyle said to WisPolitics the legislature should be proud of passing the state budget on time and not having to pass a budget adjustment this spring. What Doyle did not mention is that the state budget had a new provision that allowed the legislature to avoid putting the books in order even though revenue collected is falling far short of what the budget required.  For a more complete analysis of just how bad that budget and other fiscal mismanagement from 2009 was, see MacIver’s $13 Billion of Bad.

The Pew Center on the States listed Wisconsin as one of nine states facing a fiscal crisis most similar to California. Despite passing a state budget that included $3 billion in tax increases, the next budget starts out $2 billion in the red before new spending is added. This legislature spent federal stimulus money, borrowed, and raided segregated funds to fill this budget cycle’s gaps. By not enacting real reforms to Wisconsin’s big spending habits, the legislature kicked many of its fiscal problems to local units of government who raised local property taxes to cover the cuts in state funding and higher state fees.

This was also the session that saw the Public Service Commission risk its reputation for independence by supporting Governor Jim Doyle’s global warming bill. Its analysis of the bill was deeply flawed, as were the conclusions. Democrats and Republicans came to their own judgments about the bill rather than trust the word of the Public Service Commission.

Perhaps the legislature’s best example of dysfunction this session was its failure to deal with State Representative Jeff Wood.  Wood was arrested three times in one year for Operating While Intoxicated, five times overall. The first of the three arrests also included possession of marijuana. However, because of the slim majority for the Democrats in the Assembly, the Democrats effectively shielded Wood from expulsion. Wood himself cast the deciding vote to table the expulsion resolution.

Unfortunately when the legislature left Madison, they did not leave a treasure of gold hidden in a grave anywhere to pay for the mess. Where are Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco when we need them?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute.