And the Winners Are… (Part One)

Our gavel to gavel coverage of the 2009-2010 legislative session in Madison was our inaugural effort at reporting news and providing analysis on what transpired at the State Capitol. Thousands of hours later, we felt it appropriate to look back and recognize the outstanding accomplishments and the forgettable performances of our elected officials from the past 16 months.

Over the last several days we’ve been accumulating nominations from our readers on twitter and facebook. Thank you to everyone who submitted nominations.  What follows is part one of two part series that recognizes the best, and worst, from under the dome.

By Brett Healy, President, The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy

The MacIver Institute’s Inaugural End of Session Awards


Steel Spine

The truth shall set you free (of your Chairmanship) – In mid-April, Senator Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee)  took to the floor of the Senate to lay into Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) for denying a vote on a repeal of the prescription drug mark-up law, saying he was “disgusted” by Decker’s stance on the issue.

Less than a week later, Decker removed Carpenter as chair of the Public Health, Senior Issues, Long-Term Care, and Job Creation Committee.

“Once again, Senate leadership will not allow bills that are very important to my constituents to come before the Senate for a vote,” Carpenter said in a statement to WisPolitics. “They can take away my committee chairmanship, but my constituents expect me to stand up and fight for them, and I will continue to do so.”

Spine of Jello

Kathleen Vinehout talks a good game. During the heat of the budget debate last year, Vinehout posted an entry on the liberal blog Uppity Wisconsin.

“In the Capitol, the culture is one of a few making the decisions and the many having their arms twisted to go along with the deal

“The culture of the Capitol has to change. Our job as elected officials is to take what’s happening in our districts to Madison. Once in Madison, we all have to be involved in making decisions. If we agree to deals we are not party to making, we not only give up our own power, we give up the power of the voters in our district.”

She later told the Eau Claire Leader Telegram, “There’s a lot more than one thing that needs to be changed before I can vote yes,” she said. “I need to be able to honestly go back to my people and say, given that we have very difficult times, this is the best we can do. I’m not there now. Absolutely not.”

Despite the heated protestations, she voted for the Budget. $13 Billion worth of warts and all.

Straight Talker

Senator Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) co-Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Clean Energy made a stunning comment about the threat of global warming, just as a meeting of his committee was concluding in February.

Plale informed his fellow Senators that the final bill, SB 450-dubbed by supporters as “The Clean Energy Jobs Act,” would undergo revisions as the legislative process continues. Plale told his colleagues and others in attendance “Now is the time to take the information we’ve gathered, start to put something together that’s workable.”

Plale then stunned the audience with this admission about his position on the global warming debate: “I don’t know if the science is real or not.”

At that point, Governor Doyle’s global warming push started to unravel and ultimately, the bill did not pass this session.

Mr. Sensitivity

As session was winding down, the State Assembly finally got around to debating what to do with their (alleged) habitual impaired driver, Representative Jeff Wood (I-Chippewa Falls). The Assembly spent the early morning hours one Friday debating whether to expel Wood as he was facing three drunken driving charges.

Although the censure motion, authored by Whitewater Republican Steve Nass, was not on that day’s (night’s) calendar, Wood himself led the effort to bring the matter up for a vote. Nass was not present that evening, and it is rare that a measure is voted on when its author is absent

Milwaukee Democrat Pedro Colon seized the opportunity to complain that Nass should have made an effort to be there.

“If he wants to prosecute, he should show up,” Colon said.

A galling statement considering Nass was at his mother’s wake when session began the night before and was preparing for her funeral to be held later that same morning – a fact known to Colon at the time.  He later told a Milwaukee radio station “I am sorry if I offended Representative Nass in any way in his time of loss. It was 3:00 in the morning. Everyone was a little tired and I probably would have phrased it differently if I had gotten some rest.”

Stay classy, Pedro.

Taxpayer Hero

In a year with few legislative victories for the taxpayer, the award could easily have gone to State Representative Leah Vukmir, for stopping unelected taxing authorities with a timely amendment that would have required the creation of the Milwaukee County RTA to be subject to a binding referendum. However, the taxpayer hero award has no business residing in the state legislature after this disastrous session.

Proof that real, investigative journalism still exists  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge. Rutledge’s fantastic series of reports on Wisconsin’s child care subsidy system, known as Wisconsin Shares, earned her a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. The “Cashing in on Kids,” series exposed poor oversight of the state’s $350 million taxpayer-subsidized child-care system, fraud and other criminal activity.

Taxpayer Villain

Proof that real, investigative journalism doesn’t matter to state bureaucrats – The Department of Children and Families, led by Secretary Reggie Bicha. Rutledge’s work spurred criminal probes that brought indictments and led to new state laws aimed at eliminating fraud and keeping criminals out of the day care business. Yet just last week it was learned that a Menomonee Falls couple whose child-care center had been under criminal investigation for suspected fraud since at least January continued to collect money from the state’s taxpayer-financed Wisconsin Shares program. Worse yet, the pair received a $18,000 check that was issued one day the FBI raided the day care center.

Coming soon: In Part Two we recognize the strongest commitment to a citizen legislature, the most powerful and least effective Capitol insiders and our 2009-2010 Friend of the Free Market.