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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And That’s All They Wrote

The Legislature ends its session without major reforms

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Progressives had high hopes for the end of the 2009-2010 legislative session. With both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in Democratic hands for the first time in 22 years, everyone expected that bills that have been crying out for attention—mass transit funding, election reform and clean energy, most notably—would become law this session.

There were some progressive tax reforms and other very positive legislation passed in the earlier months of the current term, but the final days of the session ended with the Senate shutting down for the year in the middle of the afternoon without sweeping reforms or bills on controversial issues. Hours later, the state Assembly followed suit, passing leftovers from the Senate, unable to amend any Senate bill that was passed and unable to initiate anything new to send over to the already-adjourned Senate.

So what happened? Here are some answers:

Lame-Duck Governor and Slim Majorities Lack Clout: Being a lame-duck governor explains only part of why Jim Doyle failed so badly in his final year in office. After announcing that he wouldn’t run for a third term, Gov. Doyle assured voters that he’d still be able to muscle through his favorite, high-profile initiatives. His attempted Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) mayoral takeover legislation crashed and burned without enough support among Milwaukee legislators or the public. And the governor’s Clean Energy Jobs Act was killed by Milwaukee state Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee).

Popular lame-duck governors can often get things done because legislators want to help a governor’s legacy. Let’s face it: Doyle was not only unpopular enough with the public to deter him from trying to run for a third term, he was also unpopular with many legislators. So Doyle lost his clout because he was not loved by the Legislature and, as a lame duck, he could no longer strike fear into the hearts of legislators.

The Democrats in the Legislature hold very slim majorities in both chambers, and when you have Democrats like Sen. Plale and Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer continually voting like Republicans when the chips are down, it is hard to keep that majority on difficult but necessary legislation. Furthermore, in the first fall election after a new president is elected, the party of the president almost invariably loses seats in various legislative bodies both at the federal and state levels. So without a popular governor pushing his legislation by working the media and being out on the stump, it was very difficult for the majority party in the Legislature to hold their cowardly members in line. The Senate could only afford to lose two votes and the Assembly three and still maintain a majority—very slim margins.

A Tax Increase Will Not Pass Before an Election, Even If the Tax Has Been Requested: In the 2008 fall election, Milwaukee County citizens voted to increase the sales tax 1% to pay for mass transit, parks, cultural assets and emergency medical services; those entities would then be taken off of the property tax rolls. Technically, it’s a tax shift, not a tax increase, since property taxpayers would see some relief with these items being completely removed from the property tax. Also, independent studies showed that about a third of the sales tax would come from people who live outside of Milwaukee County. Despite the affirmative vote, a county cannot raise its sales tax without approval from the state.

So why didn’t the state follow the wishes of local taxpayers? The business organizations Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) decided that they wanted transit to have a stable funding source so that workers could get to their members’ businesses, but these groups didn’t support the same for parks, cultural assets and emergency medical services. They worked behind the scenes with their paid lobbyists to divide the issue. Doyle, as usual, quickly fell in line with the business community by supporting a half-cent sales tax for transit only and worked against the expressed wishes of the majority of Milwaukee County voters. This eventually derailed the legislation and Doyle could not get it back on track—not even for his transit-only proposal. To further complicate matters, the business community has spent millions of dollars over the years attacking any kind of tax increase so when they wanted their “tax shift” for transit, they couldn’t bring any of their typically friendly Republican legislators on board.

It Takes Just One Wayward Legislator to Block a Bill: Think the U.S. Senate is the only dysfunctional legislative body? Think again. Thanks to the efforts of state Sen. Jeff Plale, the Clean Energy Jobs Act never saw the light of day in the state Senate. According to the nonpartisan Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, it would not only create jobs but eventually lower energy costs. The bill’s opponents used short-term thinking and were successful in describing the bill as a utility-rate increaser and job killer. Plale, who has the reputation as the best legislator a lobbyist can buy, managed to infuriate his own caucus by refusing to allow the bill to be taken up by his committee. And here’s the kicker: Plale served on the task force that studied and provided most of the bill’s provisions, and he helped to craft a compromise amendment in the final weeks of the session. In essence, Plale managed to oppose his own bill and deal a deathblow to his party’s hopes of passing a 21st-century environmental protection bill. Plale should just be honest and run as the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce candidate in the next election, not as a Democrat.

Doyle claims that he really cares about the Clean Energy Jobs Act, while others feel that he is just going through the motions. If Doyle really cares, even with his lack of popularity he could call a special session on this issue, forcing legislators back to Madison, and use the almost $2 million that he has sitting in his campaign account to run TV ads in the districts of recalcitrant legislators to generate grassroots support for the bill from their constituents.

Smaller, Specific Environmental Measures Survived: Businesses looking to “go green” and utilize government loans and grants can tap into the $100 million Green to Gold Program or Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans. In addition, a Plale-authored bill expands the definition of “renewable energy” to new technologies, some created by Wisconsin businesses. But the bill has a serious downside, too: It also opens the door to much riskier energy sources and weakens the renewable energy standards currently in place. So while businesses can tap into government funds to help become more energy efficient and green, without the higher standards set by the Clean Energy Jobs Act, it’s all carrot and no stick.

There Is No Magic Bullet for MPS: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan can make states compete for more money, and the governor and the business community can push for a mayor-led MPS, and once-dueling legislators can come up with a small compromise that gives the state superintendent more power in failing schools, but none of those efforts will be the solution to MPS’s long-standing problems. Why? Because Milwaukee has decades-old issues that wind up in the classroom, like poverty, teen pregnancy, racism, segregation and low expectations. Add in the damage done to MPS by the experimental voucher school system and you’ve got a school district that’s in serious need of support.

While we applaud legislators for trying to find a legislative fix for MPS’s problems, the answer is more likely to be complex, long-term and difficult. Incoming MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton and the democratically elected MPS board should be supported by the city and the state Legislature, not hindered from doing their work.

Dubious Behavior Has Unintended Consequences: When it was revealed that Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan was having a personal relationship with a payday loan lobbyist at the same time he changed his views on the industry—from one that needs heavy regulation to one that isn’t so bad after all—it was clear that some payday lending reform would have to pass. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the bill that many wanted.

The best bill would have imposed a 36% interest cap on payday loans, the same rate cap that’s applied to payday lenders that loan to members of the U.S. military near U.S. bases, and one that had the support of almost half of the Wisconsin Legislature and a broad coalition across the state the minute it was introduced. While the resulting payday and auto title loan bill isn’t as strong as it should be, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

The Safety Net Got a Lifeline: Although Republicans are trying to block federal health reform from being implemented in the state, the majority Democrats found ways to help out folks who need health care and other protections. Both houses of the Legislature passed the BadgerCare Plus Basic Plan, which would help the 30,000 low-income childless adults who are on the waiting list for the BadgerCare Plus Core Plan. In addition, all group health insurance plans will now have to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment at the same level as other medical conditions, thanks to the Wisconsin Parity Act. And, lastly, a jobs act was passed that will help businesses use more tax credits and grants for business development and worker training.

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