April 12, 2018
MADISON, Wis. – After a long and tedious debate on the budget, special sessions, extraordinary sessions, and countless hours in committees and on the Assembly and Senate floors, the 2017-18 legislative session finally came to a close last month. To say the time between Gov. Scott Walker’s budget address last February and the final vote on the Assembly floor was hectic would be a vast understatement.
Here we recognize the best and the worst of the 2017-18 legislative session and the sometimes just plain weird personalities and bizarre developments that impacted the public policy debate in Wisconsin.
We saw not one, but two state taxes eliminated from the books in Wisconsin. Walker said no to a gas tax increase while shepherding through the 2017-19 state budget and the massive Foxconn deal at the same time. Property taxes stayed frozen as did University of Wisconsin System tuition, a consequential package of welfare reform bills made it into law, and a range of conservative victories advanced limited-government principles.
At the same time, there were plenty of things to be concerned about. From gut-punches to the free market to big spending in the Silly Season, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for right-of-center policy in the state Capitol over the past 14 months.
We poured over our archives from the past year-plus, combing through every news story – and there are a lot of them! From that and much thoughtful deliberation, the MacIver Institute has put together the winners for our 2018 End of Session Awards.
Here we recognize the best and the worst of the 2017-18 legislative session and the sometimes just plain weird personalities and bizarre developments that impacted the public policy debate in Wisconsin.
And the winners are…
“Most Undead” Zombie Award
WINNER: Alcohol Czar proposal
Like the zombies in “The Walking Dead,” some bad ideas seem almost impossible to kill. The “alcohol czar” proposal is one of these undead pieces of legislation. The liberty-killing idea first surfaced last summer during budget negotiations, but it was stopped dead by a group of free market supporters. Or so we thought. The idea lurched back to life during the spring session, coming within an inch of sucking the life out of Wisconsin’s small craft brewers and distillers. Fortunately, the free market won that battle after Sen. Patrick Testin vowed to vote against the bill in committee.
But any zombie hunter knows you can never turn your back on the walking dead, even after you think you’ve finally finished it off. It’s likely the proposal will come back, and we’ll be on guard.
The Van Wilder “Won’t Go Away” Award
Some people just can’t let go – like the seventh-year college senior in the 2002 movie National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. The title character actively avoids graduating from college, refusing to move on to the next stage of his life, even after his dad cuts off the tuition gravy train. There are some bureaucrats who apparently liked the movie a little too much. In fact, this award has two winners.
WINNER: Mike Haas
The Van Wilder award goes to former Elections Commission Administrator Mike Haas for not being able to take a not-so-subtle hint from the state Senate. The Republican majority told him “You’re fired!” in a vote to reject his appointment as permanent head of the agency after the appalling extent of the unconstitutional John Doe investigation was revealed in a December Department of Justice report.
But like a bad houseguest, after the Senate vote, Haas stayed on in another capacity, effectively keeping his job. It took several more weeks for Haas and his friends at the Elections Commission to finally realize there was no future for the bureaucrat at the agency, and he eventually said “you can’t fire me, I quit.”
WINNER: Mark Gottlieb
Former DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb also wins the Van Wilder Award. Gottlieb retired as Department of Transportation Secretary in early January 2017, just weeks before the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau released an audit of the State Highway Program that the co-chair of the Audit Committee called “devastating to the management of DOT.” Unfortunately for Gottlieb, many of the problems outlined in the audit occurred under his management.
So even though Gottlieb retired, he couldn’t just sit back as Dave Ross took over his job and changed the agency’s spend-first, ask-questions-later culture to one that looks for ways to save money. In response to a MacIver analysis of the many ways DOT wastes money, Gottlieb jumped back into the fray with a response jam-packed with excuses, blame-shifting and responsibility-dodging. While we didn’t even mention Gottlieb in our original analysis, we were more than happy to point out that his rebuttal tried to come up with excuses for every single example of wasteful spending that we found. Every single one.
Really? Gottlieb couldn’t admit that even one of the 45 examples of wasteful spending we listed could actually be reformed? Sounds like he’s more interested in defending his legacy than contributing ideas for how to save money.
Once a bureaucrat, always a bureaucrat, even when a comfortable taxpayer-funded retirement awaits.
The Bob Jauch “They Said What?!?” Stupid Comment Award
Before Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), we called this award the “foot in mouth” award or the “blowhard” award. But even though Jauch retired after the 2014 session, we’ve decided to permanently name this award after him for all the outrageous things he said. Most notably, he compared the ticketing of protesters in the Capitol rotunda in 2013 to the massacre at the protests in Tiananmen Square, where communist forces violently put down a mass demonstration and killed anywhere from hundreds to thousands of protesters. Talk about hyperbole.
WINNER: Rep. Katrina Shankland
This session was also full of hyperbole, including overheated insinuations that conservative policies will kill people. Rep. Katrina Shankland was at the forefront of bombast with her over-the-top rhetoric claiming that Republican ideas for health care reform will kill people.
Adding a consumer-driven health plan option for state employees – yes, an option, not a mandate – would literally mean the death of state workers, according to Shankland. And adding to the “Republicans want you to die!” scare-mongering of the left last summer, she posted a mock insurance card insinuating the GOP health plan is for people to “die quickly.”
If we’re ever going to wake up from the nightmare of Obamacare and pass serious health care reform, rhetoric like Shankland’s will only stand in the way.
Outstanding Citizen Legislator Award
WINNER: Sen. Terry Moulton
The list of outstanding citizen legislators is a long one, but that doesn’t mean this choice was hard.
When we think of a citizen legislator, we typically think of someone for whom public service isn’t a career but a calling. Citizen legislators could lead perfectly comfortable lives and enjoy successful careers without the headache of politics, but they choose to be tirelessly involved in their communities and to bring their real-world experience to government.
That’s a perfect description of Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls). Moulton is the owner of an archery and tackle business in Lake Hallie and founder of a fishing tackle manufacturing company. Before going into businesses, Moulton worked as a hospital administrator. Elected to the Assembly in 2004 and the Senate in 2010, he serves with humility – far too rare in politics – and he doesn’t seek the spotlight. Recently, Moulton’s senate committee took the unprecedented step of holding a hearing on a bill reforming the state’s minimum markup law, the first hearing for a bill that sends most legislators running in the opposite direction.
We can think of no one more deserving of a little recognition than Sen. Moulton, and we wish him the best in retirement.
Steel Spine Award
Honorable mention: Rep. Scott Allen. Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) was at the forefront of calling for an audit of the shadowy Public Finance Authority when it first came to the attention of the Legislature late in last summer’s budget debate. As someone pushed from the dark corners to grant the quasi-public agency more power, including the power of eminent domain, Allen pushed back. Now that the session is over with no audit, Allen keeps pushing.
Honorable mention: Rep. Andre Jacque. State Rep. Andre Jacque stood up for the taxpayer, and it cost him. The De Pere Republican had the audacity to hold a hearing on prevailing wage reform legislation in the committee he chaired. Republican leadership, Jacque told Media Trackers, didn’t care for that. So Jacque was stripped of his committee chair position.
This story does have a happy ending, at least for taxpayers. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill reforming the state’s antiquated prevailing wage laws, which artificially inflate labor costs on government construction projects. A fiscal conservative in a conservative-led Legislature was punished for standing up for conservative principles. Sometimes political spine is hard to come by. Not for Andre Jacque in the cause of prevailing wage reform.
WINNER: Gov. Scott Walker
When Gov. Walker ran for re-election in 2014, he said he would not raise the state’s gas tax or vehicle registration fee without a corresponding decrease in taxes elsewhere. That didn’t sit well with some strategists, special interests, and legislative leaders, who launched a massive, intense campaign to pressure the governor to agree to increase the gas tax.
From a made-up $1 billion transportation fund “deficit” concocted using Madison Math to an astroturf campaign planting fake letters to the editor in news publications around the state urging a gas tax hike, the “Just Fix It” forces went all-out to soak the taxpayer.
Walker stood firm, recognizing that there’s still tremendous waste to eliminate from the current state Department of Transportation budget. To help cut out the fat and change the spend-first, ask-questions-later culture at the DOT, Walker brought in Dave Ross to head the agency.
In the end, taxpayers won and Walker signed a budget that did not raise taxes on motorists. While the price of standing firm was a two-month delay in the enactment of the budget (and two extra months of round-the-clock vigilance from budget hawks like your friends at MacIver), Walker deserves recognition for honoring his promise to taxpayers.
Social Justice Award
WINNER: Sen. Chris Kapenga
The dignity of work is a core conservative principle. We at MacIver are big fans of Arthur Brooks, and we believe, like him, a government safety net should actually lift people up and offer “true hope through earned success.” Some lawmakers get that. Perhaps no legislator gets that more than state Sen. Chris Kapenga. The Delafield Republican successfully drove one of the nation’s most ambitious welfare reform packages through the Legislature.
Walker, who has earned a national reputation as a bold government reformer, called the Legislature to action on the welfare agenda. Kapenga and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) led the charge, introducing nine bills that, among other things, require able-bodied adults to spend more time working or training for work in exchange for taxpayer-funded welfare benefits. For Kapenga – who continues to lead the effort to gain federal recognition of Wisconsin’s reform measures – the initiatives aren’t about politics. They’re about ending poverty through purpose and dignity.
“We do have one of the most aggressive fights against poverty in the nation,” Kapenga said, noting that 97 percent of people who work full-time live above the poverty line.
“We talk about statistics but we really brought it back to the dignity and purpose of human beings in this discussion.” In so doing, the Republican Legislature got back to its conservative roots.
Champion of the Free Market Award
Honorable mention: Sen. Devin LeMahieu and Rep. Adam Neylon for the REINS Act. Wisconsin – again – is a national leader on government reform, thanks in large part to Sen. Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) and Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee). The co-authors of the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny bill, commonly known as the REINS Act, expertly led this critical initiative demanding greater oversight of state bureaucratic rule-makers. With passage of the measure this session, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to check bureaucrats by requiring any rule or regulation with an economic impact of more than $10 million receive legislative approval. The Republican-controlled congress has failed to pass similar REINS Act legislation. Taxpayers and the free market will be the beneficiaries of Wisconsin’s important government reform.
Honorable mention: Rep. Rob Hutton for Project Labor Agreement reform. Project Labor Agreement reform by Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) also moved the ball forward for the free market and for taxpayers. PLAs stipulate that only union firms can bid on a certain taxpayer-funded project, and many units of government require them – shutting out non-union shops. Hutton’s reform bill prohibits a government from requiring a PLA as a condition to bid on a public project, opening new opportunities for the roughly 80 percent of the state’s construction workforce that isn’t unionized.
WINNERS: Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Jim Ott
This award wasn’t a hard decision. While even the thought of repealing Wisconsin’s antiquated minimum markup law sends many lawmakers scurrying and hiding under their desks, Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Jim Ott – again – fought back against an entrenched special interest. They keep pushing for a repeal or reform of the Unfair Sales Act, the Great Depression-era law that mandates a minimum price markup on gasoline and pharmaceutical drugs and forbids retailers from selling other merchandise below cost.
At long last, a scaled-back version of the repeal got a hearing late this session. No doubt that alone set many lobbyists’ hair on fire, but unfortunately the bill didn’t go any further. Nonetheless, we applaud Vukmir and Ott for their steadfast commitment to the free market and to killing off the minimum markup law once and for all.
Hearing for bill repealing parts of antiquated Great Depression era #MinimumMarkup law is packed w/ people standing in hallway. @WisConsumers #wiright wipolitics pic.twitter.com/tGvUF0Z7KD
— MacIver Institute (@MacIverWisc) February 14, 2018
Enemy of the Free Market Award
Dishonorable mention: the Alcohol Czar. For threatening to upend Wisconsin’s alcohol industry with an onerous, beefed up “three tier” regulatory scheme and adding layers of bureaucracy to enforce it, the sneaky special interests who pushed the aforementioned zombie “alcohol czar” legislation get an honorable mention as an enemy of the free market…or, we should say, a dishonorable mention. We like our small craft brewers and want them to stay in business, thank you very much. We hope this proposal stays dead.
Dishonorable mention: Kimberly-Clark “Pay-to-Stay.” Another dishonorable mention goes to the pushers of a “pay-to-stay” bailout of struggling paper company Kimberly-Clark. We wonder if those pushing this idea used email while coming up with the idea, or if they did all their business with a typewriter and paper? Needless to say, technology and changing demographics make the future of a paper company a tough road – kind of like when the telegraph put the Pony Express out of business. Government can’t stop the flow of progress with dams made of taxpayer cash, so it shouldn’t try, even if it is an election year.
Dishonorable mention: “Free” Internet for all. Some Madison liberals truly believe that Internet access is an inalienable right. With that socialist twist on our nation’s founding principles, city leaders have pushed a very expensive pilot program to bring subsidized broadband to four low-income neighborhoods. At a cost of a half million dollars (and counting) to the liberal city’s overburdened taxpayers, the digital handout could get a whole lot more expensive should the city pursue a “ubiquitous” fiber network.
Not long after a MacIver News Service investigation shed light on the program’s massive costs and operational realities, the city of Madison terminated its $512,000 contract with the local company charged with implementing the troubled pilot program. Bullet dodged, at least momentarily. But the big-government-in-broadband pushers will be back, and the state’s taxpayers should be advised that there are many at the Capitol who share this Internet entitlement point of view.
Dishonorable mention: Legislative leaders. Another session, another failure by legislative leadership to bring minimum markup repeal to a vote. It was a positive step forward that a bill by Sen. Leah Vukmir and Rep. Jim Ott actually got a hearing in the committee chaired by Sen. Terry Moulton – a first – but the law remains on the books thanks to legislative leadership’s intransigence. That means higher prices for gasoline and prescription drugs because those items are subject to a mandated price markup of 9.18 percent, while all other merchandise must be sold at or above cost. The fact that this Depression-era law remains on the books in the era of Amazon.com is a shame.
WINNER: The Havens Center at UW-Madison
The taxpayer-funded Havens Center has earned this award in the past, and despite various assaults on the free market this legislative session, this radical den of anti-capitalists and socialists once again claims the prize as the enemy #1 of the free market in Wisconsin.
Aside from peddling run-of-the-mill extreme-leftist ideology, the Havens Center took their free market hate to the next level by honoring a longtime apologist and cheerleader for socialist strongmen with a lifetime achievement award. The writer, Tariq Ali, has spent his career praising men like Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, the socialist dictators whose policies have turned Venezuela from a prosperous nation to an impoverished and oppressed hellhole in the space of one generation.
The Havens Center’s blind adherence to its radical ideology, despite the humanitarian crisis that failed socialist policies have provoked in Venezuela, proves that ignorance is bliss. Their bestowing of an award on Ali adds insult to an already injured Venezuela and people around the world who suffer under regimes imposing the agenda that the Havens Center prescribes for America.
Jedi Mind Trick Doublespeak Award
WINNER: Rep. Peter Barca
Like when Obi Wan Kenobi used the Force to convince a suspicious stormtrooper that he didn’t need to see Luke Skywalker’s ID and that “these are not the droids you’re searching for,” some politicians seem to think they can say anything to hide the truth.
Democrats in the Legislature pulled their own Obi Wan Kenobi, spending months insisting that the Foxconn deal was nothing more than a scam in an attempt to turn voters against the deal. They insisted the proposed massive manufacturing campus in southeastern Wisconsin would never be built, its potential 13,000 jobs would never come to fruition, the deal would fall through, and the company was negotiating in bad faith nearly all of last summer.
Time after time they were proven wrong. And when it came time to debate the unprecedented tax incentive package on the Assembly floor, Democrats spent hours continuing to insist that the Foxconn jobs would never actually materialize. Apparently, they were not only stubbornly wrong but dishonest to boot.
Speaker Robin Vos caught then-Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) in a moment of double-speak when Barca slipped up and admitted there would actually be so many jobs we won’t have the capacity to train enough people to fill them.
Speaking of doublespeak, after spending months bashing the deal, Barca ultimately voted for it. It was the right thing for his district, which is in the area of the development and will certainly benefit. Still, his fellow Dems quickly deposed him as minority leader for the grave betrayal.
Most Powerful Capitol Player Award
Dishonorable mention: Lobbyists. From the “alcohol czar” to the death (again) of minimum markup repeal to the shadowy Public Finance Authority to the demise of direct primary care and dental therapy…well, you get the idea. Free-market afterthought lobbyists didn’t get their gas tax increase, but they certainly inserted their priorities into the debate and wielded their power in the Capitol to kill a lot of good legislation that threatened their interests. Like it or not (and we don’t) big money special interests still have a lot of sway under the dome.
WINNERS: Sens. Stroebel, Nass, and Kapenga
This award goes to a trio of state senators who were crucial to stopping some nasty proposals from becoming law last fall. State Sens. Duey Stroebel, Steve Nass, and Chris Kapenga banded together during the final stages of the budget process to insist that the only way they could approve the budget would be if Walker agreed to veto changes to a number of late-session proposals, including stack-the-deck changes to the Transportation Projects Commission, the delay on the repeal of the prevailing wage, and expanded authority including the power of eminent domain for the shadowy Public Finance Authority.
On behalf of Wisconsin taxpayers, we thank the senators for standing up for their free market, good government principles and demanding those vetoes despite intense pressure to ram through a budget that was two months late.
Least Powerful Capitol Player Award
The largest teachers union in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, once again gets the award for least powerful Capitol player. While the 2017-19 budget included a dramatic increase in K-12 funding, the hobbled teachers union had nothing to do with it. In fact, the increase was more than proposed by state superintendent of school Tony Evers.
In recent years WEAC has seen its membership rolls plummet. The union boasted approximately 100,000 members before Act 10, but in 2016 the union counted just 36,000 members. WEAC was a long-time supporter of Wisconsin progressives, holding taxpayers hostage with expensive public-sector employee contracts. It used to be Wisconsin’s mightiest lobbying force, spending $1 million lobbying the state Legislature in the first half of 2009 alone, but the union’s political action committee has spent next to nothing since the recall elections in 2012. It also suffered a decline in revenue of more than $3 million between 2014 and 2015, the largest decline in the country.
WEAC was once a powerful Capitol player that swung a mighty club as it subverted the interests of taxpayers, but Act 10 cut it down to size. As a consequence, the collective bargaining reform law has saved taxpayers more than $5 billion.
The “Wait, What?” Clueless Award
Honorable mention: Sen. Dave Hansen. Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) thinks liberal arts are the “future” of Wisconsin, not cutting-edge programs in Aquaponics, Geographic Information Systems, Graphic Design, and others. WHAT???
Hansen made the comments on the Senate floor while mourning UW-Stevens Point’s decision to shift away from the humanities and get rid of some liberal arts majors with sagging enrollment in favor of new programs that will prepare students for the careers of the future. He was giving cover to fellow Democrat Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point, who was using the campus’ pragmatic strategy shift as an excuse to protest and polarize the university.
Honorable mention: “C*cks Not Glocks.” Sometimes, college campuses seem like an alternative universe. So when Townhall.com editor and Second Amendment advocate Katie Pavlich came to UW-Madison to speak about why concealed carry on campus would make college students safer from violent crime, it came as little surprise that the liberals staged a protest.
But the protest, called “C*cks Not Glocks,” was stranger than fiction. Students waving sex toys outside the venue even shouted down a student who said her friend, who had been raped, would have been able to protect herself if she could have carried her gun. Instead of making a rational case for why they disagreed with her, the protesters broke into mechanized chants of “This is what democracy looks like” and “C*cks not Glocks.”
No, it didn’t make any sense to us, either. Normal, rational people might even have trouble believing we didn’t make the story up. Fortunately, a quick-thinking MacIver intern caught it all on video.
WINNER: Savion Castro
There is no shortage of blowhardery, gaffes, and downright uninformed comments in the world of politics. But it isn’t always politicians who say things that make average sane human beings scratch their heads.
And there was a good deal of head-scratching when liberal students talked about the importance of free speech on campus in a legislative committee hearing last May. Some students, like Savion Castro, presented a unique interpretation of the First Amendment, where speech is considered a luxury and their right to not be offended takes precedence over others’ constitutional rights.
Free speech is a luxury? On a public university campus? No – free speech is a right, no matter how badly self-appointed speech cops want to censor people they disagree with.
WINNER: Gov. Scott Walker
During Sunshine Week in 2016, Walker ordered state agencies to track records requests, set up accountability dashboards, and set limits on how much agencies can charge for open records requests and how long they can take to fulfill them.
Walker last year renewed that order, but also expanded it, ordering state agencies to identify which records are most commonly requested and make them publicly available without a records request. His action also expanded agency dashboards that report an agency’s responsiveness, among other important steps toward a more open, efficient government.
That’s why the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council recently awarded Walker with their Popee Award, the Opee for openness by a politician. It is well-earned.
“Last March, for the second year in a row, Wisconsin’s governor issued an executive order ordering state agencies to improve their performance on open records requests,” the Wisconsin FOIC said in a statement. “It directs them to track and post their record response times and limits how much they can charge. It also requires “regular training for all employees and members of all boards, councils, and commissions.”
“Walker’s efforts in this area, including his executive order in 2016, are much appreciated,” FOIC stated.
Cloak Of Darkness Award
WINNER: Shadowy Budget Add-ons
Some awful legislation was covertly crafted and shoved into the budget at the last minute. One proposal would have expanded the authority of a shadowy quasi-public bond agency called the Public Finance Authority, including the power of eminent domain. Another reworked the makeup of the Transportation Projects Commission to add layers of bureaucracy and, critics charged, advocate for tax increases. The bad-government legislation failed the transparency test.
Thankfully, a bit of healthy rebellion by three conservative senators killed the budget items in their tracks. But the Republicans who thought these proposals were such good ideas should have had the courage to bring them out of the shadows sooner, not try to sneak them in at the last minute.
Slippery Slope Award
WINNER: Foxconn deal
When the Foxconn deal was announced, the Wisconsin public saw some numbers we’re not used to seeing in the Badger State. First there was the sheer size and scope of the project. Larger than 11 Lambeau Fields, the development deal is the largest of its kind in American history. Once built, the $10 billion development promised to employ up to 13,000 people and would be among the largest manufacturing campuses in the world.
We also saw an unprecedented investment by taxpayers in what promised to be a project with the potential to transform Wisconsin’s economy. The staggering size of the tax credit package – nearly $3 billion – was uncharted territory. As Gov. Walker said in rolling out the deal in Milwaukee, playing in the big leagues meant big league dollars. While the sheer size and potential upside of the development was exciting, we also asked why all businesses can’t get the same deal.
Going down the road of picking winners and losers is always a slippery slope, a fear that was confirmed when Gov. Walker and some legislators proposed giving the same deal to struggling paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark. The Foxconn deal will bring new jobs in a growing industry, but the Kimberly-Clark “pay-to-stay” deal was a bailout to keep existing jobs in an industry on the decline.
The Foxconn deal is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move Wisconsin’s economy into the 21st Century and put the state on the map for high-tech manufacturing the world around. Still, the taxpayer incentive package is a big concern – largely because it opens the door to stinkers like the Kimberly-Clark bailout. Free market advocates should stay vigilant and keep asking why, if the Foxconn deal is the key to attracting the industries of tomorrow, the same deal shouldn’t be given to all Wisconsin employers.
General Patton Award for Leadership
WINNER: Secretary Dave Ross
Nobody envied Dave Ross when he took over the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in early 2017. The department had just been audited by the legislature and failed miserably. Auditors found the DOT was regularly breaking state law with budgeting, negotiating, communicating, and managing contracts. Subsequently the department was $3 billion over budget on 16 projects, and it hadn’t kept accurate enough records to explain why.
When Ross testified to the audit committee in February, he told them his goals for the department. “We need to change the culture at DOT, we need to become more performance driven, we need to be more accurate,” he said.
He took the same staff that helped create the mess and started asking them tough questions, changed the incentive structure, and prioritized innovation. Finding efficiencies and savings is now a department priority, and the DOT has saved $69.2 million over the past year.
Transforming the DOT from a state embarrassment into a model of government innovation in just 18 months is something General Patton would surely find admirable.
Champion of the Constitution Award
WINNER: Sen. Dave Craig
In an era of constant assaults on cherished rights, it was refreshing to see folks like state Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) stand up for the constitution. Craig has labored for years at reforming Wisconsin’s abusive civil asset forfeiture law. After such reform measures died on the vine in previous legislative sessions, the Town of Vernon Republican shepherded his bill to passage.
It wasn’t easy, and Craig certainly didn’t do it alone. He got a huge assist from the bill’s co-author, Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel) and bold constitution defenders like the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty. But the lawmaker’s tireless campaign puts an end to what some civil rights activists have described as “Policing for Profit.” Craig’s bill prohibits law enforcement from seizing assets from individuals who are not charged or convicted of a crime.
Upon passage, Craig said the day was a “long time coming.” Indeed. But the constitution is worth fighting for. Thank goodness folks like Craig and Tauchen believe so, too.
Civil asset forfeiture reform isn’t the only reason Craig deserves this award, though.
In December, we learned that one of the darkest chapters in Wisconsin political history was even more sinister than first thought. Attorney General Brad Schimel’s extensive report into the abusive John Doe II investigation found misconduct by the prosecutors and government bureaucrats who led the unconstitutional probe into conservative organizations and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. But the attorney general’s report raised many more questions about the extent and motivations of the abuse.
Craig wanted to give the Legislature the tools to answer those questions. Unfortunately, his legislation creating a bicameral committee to investigate the John Doe investigators turned into too tough a sell for some of his colleagues. It’s clear the John Doe prosecutors and their big-government allies used the constitution as a doormat. Now, who’s going to hold them accountable? Craig has stepped forward in the name of the constitution as few of his fellow legislators have.
Enemy of the Constitution Award
Dishonorable mention: John Doe ringleaders. Emails and other communications obtained in lawsuits have pointed to partisan motivations by the John Doe II investigators. Audio obtained by MacIver News Service last year showed just how partisan the campaign finance probe was. Kevin Kennedy, former head of the state Government Accountability Board, the disgraced and disbanded campaign ethics and elections agency, let it all hang out at a national meeting of his fellow speech cops.
Kennedy arguably violated the law when he shared leaked, court-sealed documents from the investigation at the meeting of free speech regulators. He certainly defended the probe’s use of predawn, armed raids on the homes of conservative targets, the massive surveillance operation on the left’s political enemies and the utter chilling of right-of-center speech in Wisconsin. Kennedy left the GAB in 2016 (before he was forced out), but the shadows of the taxpayer-funded assault on the Bill of Rights Kennedy helped lead linger on.
WINNER: Rep. Chris Taylor
If there were ever any doubts over what designs the Democrat Party has for Wisconsin should it regain power, look no further than Rep. Chris Taylor’s proposed amendments to the state constitution released in the very last days of the session. If enacted, it would be a disaster for taxpayers and trample the state constitution.
The liberal manifesto would make broad changes to Wisconsin’s Bill of Rights to include open-ended promises that government cannot possibly deliver and shift power away from the Legislature and governor to the bureaucracy. In general, the changes seek to undo everything Republicans have accomplished since 2011 and make it difficult for them to ever be in control again. The role of government would expand uncontrollably, as voters would lose influence over state officials.
The Wisconsin constitution was written to empower the people and limit the government. Taylor’s Amendments would fundamentally alter that relationship to limit the people and empower the government. The plan would turn the reins over to unelected bureaucrats and union bosses, roll back collective bargaining reform that’s saved taxpayers more than $5 billion, give a blank check to educrats, enshrine an uncompetitive progressive tax code in the state constitution, and more.
Taxpayer Villain Award
WINNER: Local Governments
Creating budgets is about setting priorities, but that’s a tough thing to do. Many Wisconsin local governments prefer the easy way out – raising taxes. The wheel tax is a popular one. During the past year drivers in Lincoln County, Eden, Evansville, Milton, New London, Platteville, and Portage started paying a $20 wheel tax. In Milwaukee County, it’s $30. The City of Milwaukee continues to push for a local sales tax, something no city in Wisconsin is authorized to do. Then there’s the situation in Verona.
When Verona’s Tax Increment District containing Epic closed, $140 million would be added to the local property tax rolls. That would mean a big drop in property tax bills for homeowners. The owner of a $250,000 home, for example, would save $527 a year. Rather than let that happen, the school district pushed for a $181.3 million referendum to build a new high school. Voters approved it, and property taxes increased instead. Now the owner of a $250,000 home will see their taxes increase $105 a year.
Add to that the results of Tuesday’s referenda in 66 school districts around the state. Districts asked for a total of $667 million in tax hikes. Voters approved the vast majority – 84 percent. It’s ultimately up to local voters to say yes or no to raising their own taxes, but many times districts feel far too entitled to their taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
While Gov. Walker has done his part to freeze property taxes, many property tax payers are still seeing an increase in their bill thanks to local governments.
For treating their local taxpayers like a cash machine, local governments more than deserve the Taxpayer Villain Award.
Taxpayer Hero Award
Honorable mention: Rep. Dale Kooyenga. State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, one of the key members of the Legislature’s “CPA caucus,” spent the session coming up with ways to give back tax dollars to their rightful owners – Wisconsin taxpayers.
In the heart of a heated budget session, the Brookfield Republican proposed an ambitious path to a flat state income tax. Of course, among public servants unwilling to dial back the spigot of government funding, Kooyenga’s plan went nowhere fast. But here at MacIver, where we’ve advocated for a Glide Path to a 3 Percent Flat Income Tax, we applaud the effort. We also applaud the entire Assembly Republican Caucus for getting behind Kooyenga’s ambitious plan.
But Kooyenga wasn’t done there. He worked with another taxpayer hero, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), also a member of the “CPA Caucus” to bring conformity to Wisconsin’s tax code. Their effort moves Wisconsin in line with many of the federal tax code changes signed into law by President Donald Trump. The result will be savings – in dollars and tax preparation headaches – to Wisconsin taxpayers. Kooyenga also tried to deliver an across-the-board, $200 million tax cut, a proposal first offered by Walker last year during the budget debates. Like Walker’s plan, Kooyenga’s tax cut proposal died for lack of interest.
WINNER: Gov. Scott Walker
For his steadfast commitment to reducing the tax burden on Wisconsinites, Gov. Walker is the clear winner – again – of the Taxpayer Hero Award.
Completely eliminating taxes is as rare as a solar eclipse, and the 2017-19 state budget axed two of them – the state’s Forestry Mill Tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax. The budget also held the line on individual income taxes, corporate taxes, and sales taxes. It didn’t increase the gas tax or general vehicle registration fee, as Walker promised. And it delivered another statewide property tax freeze to boot, meaning property taxes on a median-value home in Wisconsin are $642 lower than the trend before Walker took office and lower in actual dollars than in 2010. Walker also issued 99 vetoes to the budget, which are projected to save taxpayers a combined $87.5 million over the next two budgets.
Walker wasn’t done with the passage of the budget, though. Additional tax relief in the form of a $100 tax credit for each child under age 18 will return $100 million to Wisconsin taxpayers, and a sales tax holiday scaled back by the Senate will return approximately $12 million in 2018.
In all, the cumulative taxpayer savings thanks to tax relief enacted by Walker and the conservative Legislature amounts to $8 billion over the past seven years.
It wasn’t that long ago that we, as taxpayers, were constantly under siege from Madison, bombarded with one new tax after another. Instead of that, these days we’re talking about how to return taxpayer money, not whether to. At times we may be frustrated with some of the ideas coming out of Madison, but we must remember how much better taxpayers have it today compared to just seven years ago.
There you have it – the 2017-2018 End Of Session Awards. We hope you found this wrap-up not just entertaining, but a useful guide to who has been doing what this past session to advance – or subvert – the free market.