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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deadline Looms for Democrats to Deliver

Legislative session ends in April

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Democrats earned a hard-won victory when they took over the state Assembly in 2008, which allowed them to take control of both houses of the state Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion.

But what have they done with that power? Have they enacted progressive policies to help close the disparities between the haves and the have-nots? And will they make the most of the last weeks of the session, when a flurry of stalled bills competes for floor time before the session ends on April 22?

To be sure, the Democrats have been able to make good on some of their campaign promises, whether it was during budget negotiations or through the legislative process. Perhaps most important, they changed tax policies to make them more fair for the average Wisconsin resident. The Las Vegas loophole was closed, so businesses that earn money in Wisconsin now have to pay income taxes in Wisconsin. The capital gains tax exemption was cut back, and taxes for those who earn more than $225,000 (or $300,000 for families) was increased. Those changes helped Gov. Jim Doyle and the Democratic majority craft a budget that was far better than it could have been for the majority of the state’s taxpayers.

The state also boosted access to health care through the expanded BadgerCare Plus program, which now covers low-income individuals without children; the contraceptive equity provision in the budget, which requires insurance policies that cover prescriptions to include birth control; and a requirement that all pharmacies have on staff someone who is willing to dispense birth control.

That said, there’s still a lot of work to do. And with so many offices up for grabs in the November election, it seems that it’s now or never for progressives to enact change. Capitol insiders told us which bills are likely to pass, which ones have a fighting chance, and which bills will be left to die on the Legislature’s floor.

Done Deals

A Scaled-Back Clean Energy Jobs Act (AB 649/SB 450)

A lot of bargains went into the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, which formed the basis of this bill. But nobody seems to be terribly happy with the resulting legislation and Gov. Doyle isn’t exactly championing it, either. Naturally, there are a lot of worries about the cost to consumers and businesses, even though utilities and some major businesses signed on to the package and independent reports show that it would create jobs and keep future energy costs in check. Environmentalists seem to be happy with the increased investment in Wisconsin-grown, clean, renewable energy sources, but not so happy with the proposed change in the state’s nuclear moratorium, which may weaken the current state standards.

So how will it play out? Although Doyle initially came out strong for it, his lame-duck status and lack of sustained effort to promote it will help to doom it. The bill will be gutted to ensure safe passage. Expect a radically scaled-back bill to be delivered to the governor just in time for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

Payday Lending Regulations (Various Bills)

It would seem that cracking down on unregulated payday lenders would give Democrats a perfect opportunity to protect consumers without busting the state’s budget. But appearances can be deceiving, because this legislation got very complicated very quickly. First, there were competing bills. The toughest bill, which would set a 36% interest rate cap on short-term loans, similar to many other states, had the support of almost half of the Legislature—and that was even before it was introduced. But the industry was flush with money and spent more than $669,000 on lobbying in 2009 alone to protect its $124 million annual profits in the state. And with tough races expected in the fall, money may prevail. Add to that Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan’s relationship with a payday-lending industry lobbyist, and you’ve got a PR nightmare.

Expect something to pass. It’s anybody’s guess if it’ll be an industry-friendly bill that looks like reform but isn’t actually reform or, instead, a tough bill that truly protects consumers from predatory lenders.

Passage Possible

Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act (AB 554/SB 368)

Although an astounding 80% of Wisconsin residents want to legalize medical marijuana in the state, legislators have been reluctant to do so. It’s time to act on the responsible and compassionate Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act—a bill that the governor said he’d sign if it were sent to him. So what’s the problem? Legislators fear looking like they’re soft on drugs, although medical marijuana is legal in 14 other states and the Obama administration seems willing to respect state-regulated programs.

This may be one bill that can move forward if the public raises a fuss about it. So call and make your legislator act on this bill before it’s too late. If Republicans gain control of one legislative house or the governor’s mansion in the fall, the opportunity to legalize medical marijuana for seriously ill people will be gone for a long, long time.

Mental Health Parity Act (AB 512/SB 362)

This bill passed the Senate with a bipartisan 20-13 vote and has already been approved by one Assembly committee. Will it move forward in the state Assembly? That’s not certain, but shame on the Assembly if it doesn’t schedule a vote and pass this bill. Mental health parity is long overdue and it’s the right thing to do. There simply is no reason why individuals with an illness that affects their brain should be treated differently than those who have an illness that affects their heart, lungs or legs.

Minimum Wage Increase (SB 1/AB 41)

The Senate approved raising the minimum wage from $6.50 an hour to $7.60 an hour way back in February 2009. So why isn’t the Assembly acting on it? Raising the minimum wage would pay off profoundly, and not just for those who are in entry-level jobs. Businesses would see a boost since low-wage workers, who by necessity spend almost every dollar they earn, could afford more purchases. Studies show that minimum wage increases lead to more productive workers and less absenteeism. Plus, workers who can support themselves are less of a burden on the state’s safety net and community resources. Assembly leaders need to do the right thing and pass this bill.

Regional Transit Authorities (Various Bills)

Talk about a mess. Regional transit authorities (RTAs) in any form would allow designated communities to choose to raise funds for local and regional mass transit. The problem is that it would involve a tax or fee on something (rental cars, perhaps) or someone (shoppers). That can be a problem in an election year, when no one likes to vote for legislation involving taxes; however, this legislation has support across the entire political spectrum. But many GOP leaders would rather remain ideologically pure and not sign on to any tax increase than solve problems that benefit the public good (and are supported by their contributors, the major business groups). So despite business leaders’ support for mass transit, which would give their employees a reliable way to commute to work, RTA legislation is stalled. As a result, expect Milwaukee County’s transportation services to deteriorate even further if this legislation is not enacted.

Dead as a Doornail

MPS Takeover Bill (AB 615/SB 405)

The issue of mayoral control of the Milwaukee Public Schools took the Capitol hostage for a few months and split the Milwaukee delegation (and voters) into highly polarized camps. But its grip was broken when MPS hired incoming Superintendent Gregory Thornton in February while the governor-called special session yielded no results, only acrimony. Gov. Doyle will make noises about resuscitating the bill, but it won’t happen. A lame duck doesn’t have that kind of power over increasingly independent legislators.

Sales Tax Increase to Support Milwaukee’s Parks and Recreation (AB 504)

This is a worthy bill that unfortunately never got much attention, although it should, since Milwaukee voters approved raising the sales tax to pay for parks, cultural assets and transit. This bill would only cover parks and recreation, two assets critical to our quality of life. But since the business community doesn’t seem to care for this as much as it does transit, it has even less chance of passing than the RTA package. Not acting on this bill will only mean more problems for our under-funded parks in the years to come.


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