And the Winners Are…(Part Two)

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 in our State Capitol. Thousands of hours later, we felt it appropriate to look back and recognize the memorable accomplishments and dubious distinctions from the past 16 months.

Over the last several days we’ve been accumulating nominations from our followers and fans on twitter and facebook. This is the final of our 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


The Mr. Smith Goes To Madison and, Thankfully, Heads Back Home

For Strongest Commitment to a Citizen Legislature…Proving that public service does not have to lead to a career on the public payroll, Brookfield’s Ted Kanavas leaves the State Senate after ten years of service, and Beloit’s Chuck Bennedict leaves the State Assembly after 6 years, walking away from seats they could have held for as long as they wanted.

The Golden Shovel Award – Please Just Stop Digging

The Wisconsin Budget picture is bleaker now that ever before, but it was still pretty awful this time last year as legislators sat down to craft a new fiscal plan for the state in 2009.

But that didn’t stop the Governor and his supporters the legislature from exacerbating the problem by moving to allow employees within the University of Wisconsin to collectively bargain, and to encourage and facilitate their unionization, a move that puts taxpayers at increased risk for higher taxes and higher tuition in the future. While small and large businesses alike are struggling to keep all costs DOWN in an effort to save not only jobs but entire companies, state government is considering proposals that will INCREASE labor costs. The Legislature anticipated it would cost the state more than $2 million a year just to establish the system–that’s before any new wage agreements are negotiated.  Brilliant!  Just add it to the list that includes $13 Billion of Bad.

The Jedi Mind Trick/Doublespeak Award

Those of us that closely followed the global warming bill debate this year were excited at the prospect of giving this award to Eric Callisto, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, who continued to say, with a straight face that electric rates would go down if the state imposed an artificial scarcity by mandating the expanded use of energy generated from the more expensive renewable sources.

But nothing could top this quote:

Everything is totally transparent. Everybody knows what the bills were that were passed by the two houses and they know what the issues of debate are, the differences between the two houses. So there aren’t any secrets here.” Governor Jim Doyle on the Budget process that was crafted in closed caucus and via secret negotiations that left even senior Democrat members of the legislature out of the loop. When we obtained a copy of the secret deal, the Assembly Co-Chair of the Joint Finance Committee publicly bemoaned how we were messing up the deal.

Best Case for Term Limits

We’re agnostic on the issue of Term Limits, but every session there are some great examples of how the public would benefit. This year’s case in point: Al Ott. The long time Republican lawmaker from Forest Junction rankled his fellow caucus members with his relentless support for legislation that would create Regional Transit Authorities. His advocacy in favor of the creation on non-elected entities with taxing authority was the loudest and quite lonely voice within the GOP, and almost gave transit proponents enough support to get their proposals over the top. Almost. In an era where bipartisanship can be a powerful asset in public policy debates, Ott’s love affair with mass transit and the tax hikes that accompany them proved to provide one vote, his own.

The Danza

Who’s the Boss? Hey, we usually like it when public officials outsource work, but this is ridiculous. In an e-mail to Racine State Representative Cory Mason and his staff dated Tuesday, Sept. 22, former state Representative Jeff Neubauer suggested Mason stage a publicity event in Racine to promote a new piece of legislation.

“Announce and release the bill in the form that is attached on Friday … Nothing but good publicity will come from that. It is a no lose, all upside for you,” Neubauer wrote.

A few days later, Mason issued a press release and held a press conference at a school in Racine. He proudly said the bill would “encourage healthier and more environmentally-friendly cleaning standards for Wisconsin’s schools, state buildings, technical colleges and municipal buildings.”  He did not, however, explain that Neubauer helped draft both the legislation and the press release. Nor did he mention that Neubauer’s company could directly benefit if the proposal were to become law.  Fortunately for taxpayers, WKOW-TV’s Tony Galli did mention all of this in several reports on this story he did for broadcast and online.  The story went statewide. The bill went nowhere.

Least Effective Capitol Player

While Governor Doyle’s AWOL status for the past 8 months made him a heavy favorite for this award, he was eclipsed by Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville). When a leader has to spend half of his time looking over his shoulder to stave off an uprising within his caucus and the other half of his time explaining his personal indiscretions to the press corps and his constituents, he’s left with no time to actually lead. Sheridan survived, but he did his members no favors this session.

Most Powerful Capitol Player

Russ Decker. It is undeniable that the Majority Leader from Weston is the most powerful person in State Senate. However, as several of our readers also pointed out to us, he was the most influential person in the State Assembly, too. In a year where we have a lame duck Governor and a married Assembly Speaker weighed down in a controversy surrounding his dating life, Decker more than ably filled the void. Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny that his fingerprints were on every deal cut this session. As one of our readers pointed out, he watered down the smoking ban, watered down the drunk driving bill, then killed his governor’s energy agenda.  Senator Decker may not have achieved everything he desired, but he certainly was able to stop anything he opposed.

Friend of the Free Market

Not Awarded. As the Free Market Voice for Wisconsin, this particular award means the most to us. We examined every legislative accomplishment including two notable and laudable efforts: Democrat Representative Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee and the venerable Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) sponsored legislation to eliminate the minimum mark-up for prescription drugs; Representative Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) sponsored AB 540, which would have allowed out-of-state insurers to offer health care plans that are exempt from certain laws to employers and individuals in this state.  But to achieve this distinction requires more than merely introducing legislation. That we could not find a winner for this award speaks volumes to the problems in Madison. We hope to actually be able to give out this award in 2011 after the next legislative session adjourns.

See part one, here.