Welcome to the Silly Season

Time is running out in Madison.

There are fewer than a handful of days left for legislative ideas to become law in the 2009-2011 biennial floor session. Political insiders fondly refer to this time of year as the silly season.

Silly because the usually very slow and deliberate pace of the legislative process sinisterly turns into a frantic rush to get a laundry list of legislation passed before legislators head home to run for re-election in May. A full six months seems like a long time to campaign. Given their track record this session of raising taxes and punishing entrepreneurs, leggies might need more time to persuade the voters for another term. Or enough time to dull our senses into submission.

Silly because legislation that is little more than a rough idea hastily jotted down on the back of a cocktail napkin will have a public hearing and be voted out of committee in a matter of hours, just a few scant days after the very inception of the idea.

Think I’m exaggerating? At 4:15 yesterday afternoon, members of the all-powerful Joint Finance Committee and presumedly the press were emailed a new 90 page substitute amendment that is to be voted on Wednesday – today – less than 24 hours after introduction. Well, at least it must be a non-controversial and trivial subject matter that everyone can agree on, correct? Like what the official state songbird should be or if the Racing Sausages should replace the badger as the state’s official mascot. Wrong. The omnibus amendment that will find its way to the Governor’s desk in record time makes significant changes to our most basic right, our right to vote.

This is the silly season because every legislator, every lobbyist and every special interest group in Madison is sprinting from office to office as we speak, trying desperately to convince enough of the legislative leadership that their bill, their well-thought out public policy that EVERYONE supports, deserves to be fast-tracked even though only 2 of the 132 legislators actually know what the bill does. At least there is a legion of fat cat lobbyists swarming the halls of the Capitol who can tell our Legislators how to vote, I mean, what the bill does.

With so little time left, one would think the politicians couldn’t possibly do any further damage to Wisconsin’s economy. After all, what they did to you, the taxpayer, in the last state budget should last for a generation or two: $2 billion in additional taxes, $3.6 billion in new spending despite a $6.6 billion deficit, charged $3.5 billion to the state’s credit card, an average local property tax hike of $316, and still left the state’s checkbook out of balance to the tune of $2.33 billion.

Think again.

Silly season because despite this sea of red ink and the “worst global and national economic crisis in generations,” our esteemed leaders in Madison have found the time this spring to debate new license plates for our cars. Apparently the cure-all for these rough economic times is a pretty new plate celebrating children, your local Lions Club, motorcycle safety or the Neenah school district. I bet cross town rival Menasha could come up with some pretty creative phrases for those plates. Does the state have a full-time censor on staff?

Silly season because Assembly Bill 721, the Wayne’s World full-funding bill, is making its way through the process. Kids, you are just going to have use “the Google” to find out what Wayne’s World is.

Wayne’s dream of getting paid to do Wayne’s World would actually become reality if AB 721 passed. A new tax on the evil cable companies would provide over $8 million dollars of funding for public access programming. As Snooki and the Situation recently proved to the entire world, a tv show, no mater how insipid, will find a home in today’s world of 500+ channels and an audience if it is entertaining. What local programming could we possibly be missing that this new tax would miraculously bring into our family rooms? Don’t answer that.

Silly season because Wisconsin’s best and brightest have deemed it a priority to debate raw milk sales at roadside stands and the parking situation on the streets around the State Capitol. If someone is tempted to pull over on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, during heat-scorched July to enjoy a thirst-quenching tall glass of warm, untreated milk, I say more power to them. The fact that you need to change state law to fix parking in Madison actually says a lot about how out of control government is.

It gets worse. Instead of starting the budget process over from scratch, scouring every line item and program for savings which would finally put Wisconsin back on the path to economic recovery and keep state government from declaring bankruptcy, our legislators, with little time left on the clock, want to fix our problems by indexing the minimum wage. Why can’t our legislators understand like the rest of us that a minimum wage job is a start, an opportunity to work your way up, not the high water mark of a career? The economy is struggling and they believe it should be more expensive to hire an entry level worker?

It must be the silly season if you can’t make this stuff even if you tried. After battering the business community and investors with a slew of tax increases (a $66 million tax on computer software, a $215 million tax on combined reporting, a $40 million tax on transactions between affiliated businesses, a $55 million tax on domestic production activities, an $80 million tax on throwback sales, etc…) over the last 16 months, now, with just over 2 weeks left in the session, legislators are going to pass the “Too Little, Way Too Late” package. This effort will “help” a small number of businesses with a tax credit if they hire a new employee or an intern. Just how dumb do they think we are?

Silly season because legislation that once seemed all but dead is now, in the true Easter spirit, alive and picking up bipartisan support. Unelected taxing bodies, Regional Transit Authorities if you speak bureaucrat, should make every Wisconsinite nervous. After failing to garner enough legislative support with their original proposal, mass transit advocates have sweetened the pot with $9 million in incentives to lure southeastern counties to join the effort. I guess when you are talking about a new lifetime tax that will never go away, less than $10 million up front seems like a reasonable price to pay.

Finally, it must be the silly season because the fanatical supporters of the global warming bill just won’t give up. Insiders believe a compromise agreement will be unveiled later this week with the hope of creating new momentum to get the bill passed. Never mind that the scientific research behind the entire movement has been called into question. Or that an independent analysis has shown that the bill will cost Wisconsin’s economy 43,000 jobs and rate payers over $1,000 a year in higher utility bills. The federal carbon tax, the “savings” cornerstone on which this bill is built, certainly will not happen in an election year as an already unpopular Congress heads home to face the voters. So, why then, are a small number of zealots still forcing this bill upon the entire body? If only a few of the more reasonable legislators would wake up and ask that very question.

Maybe we can hope that all of these last minute, secretly negotiated deals will die once the public is given a chance to weigh in or that the clock will run out before they make it to the Governor’s desk?

Don’t be silly.

By Brett Healy
A MacIver Perspective

Healy is President of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy