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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

Why Republicans Dislike Leah Vukmir

Is she just too extreme for Wisconsin?

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In the western suburbs, voters in the 5th Senate District will have a big decision to make on Nov. 2. Should they cast a ballot for the incumbent, moderate Democratic Sen. Jim Sullivan, or his rival, conservative Republican state Rep. Leah Vukmir, the darling of the tea party and talk-radio crowd?

That decision may be a little easier once voters learn more about Vukmir’s extreme voting record in the Assembly, where she represents Wauwatosa, Brookfield and Elm Grove.

It’s no surprise that Vukmir is a fiscal conservative, pro-life Republican who values the role of the private sector above everything else. That’s sort of standard for the party.

What sets Vukmir apart from many of her Republican colleagues are her ultraconservative positions that are far to the right of the standard GOP platform.

Generally, most Republicans want smaller government and less spending. But Vukmir pushed a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) that was so “tough” it caused a deep divide in the Republican ranks and outraged local elected officials.

Similarly, many Republicans oppose abortion but understand that exemptions should be made for women who are the victims of incest or rape or whose lives are in danger. But Vukmir has earned an endorsement from the far-right Pro-Life Wisconsin—not to be confused with the mainstream anti-abortion group Wisconsin Right to Life—for her “100% pro-life” record. That means absolutely no abortions and no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother, plus no contraceptives, no publicly funded STD testing and treatment for low-income men and women, and no embryonic stem cell research.

While Vukmir may want to play down her ranking as one of the 10 “worst legislators,” a title bestowed on her in Milwaukee Magazine by colleagues in the state Legislature and other Capitol insiders, the candidate isn’t shying away from her ultraconservative views. In fact, her campaign website promotes her speech at a Franklin Tea Party rally; her award from the Americans for Prosperity, the Big Oil-funded Astro-turf front group that’s caught in a potentially illegal voter suppression plot in Milwaukee; and her link to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the far-right-wing think tank aligned with AT&T, Big Pharma, Tobacco, Oil, Wal-Mart and the insurance companies.

Judy Hartig-Osanka, a Republican and former chair of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, has a warning for residents of the 5th Senate District.

“I cannot believe that Republicans in her district, if they know what she believes in, would support her,” Hartig-Osanka said.

Also, a Republican Capitol staffer who can’t go on record said, “Many Republican staffers believe that she is so extreme and heartless that she is dangerous.”

Vukmir’s campaign did not return a call seeking comment for this article.

Too Extreme on Taxes for Her Fellow Republicans

Vukmir, a pediatric nurse, won election to the Assembly in 2002. You’ll typically find her in the minority, even when Republicans have held the majority and led the 99-seat chamber, proving that she is not willing to work with her colleagues to govern.

Vukmir is such a radical that one of her pet causes, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR)—which would cap state spending to the detriment of local governments, law enforcement and school districts—flamed out when the Republicans controlled the Assembly and could have easily passed it.

TABOR was so restrictive that, for example, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District would have lost $2 million in revenues in one year if it had been enacted. That money would have been supplemented by higher property taxes.

Although Republicans held 59 of 99 Assembly seats in the legislative session that considered TABOR, it created a deep division within the GOP caucus.

WTMJ AM’s Charlie Sykes admitted as much, in an essay in Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s house organ, Wisconsin Interest. After stating that local elected officials conducted an “intense” lobbying effort against TABOR because it would severely restrict their revenue, Sykes wrote that only one southeastern Wisconsin Republican opposed it while Republicans outstate voted against it in droves. Why this geographical disparity?

Some argue that it was conservative talk radio intimidating the Republican legislators in the Milwaukee area. As Sykes wrote, “Republicans know they will be held accountable by the alternative conservative media.”

In the end, a few versions of TABOR were introduced and all failed to pass both houses of the state Legislature. Vukmir’s version, written with ultraconservative Rep. Frank Lasee, was a “tough” last-minute alternative, as Sykes described it, among other “weaker” ones.

But Vukmir’s proposal was deeply unpopular. When it came to a vote, it received only 33 of the 59 Republican votes in the Assembly, just a little more than half of the GOP legislators. Democrats wouldn’t touch it.

More recently, Vukmir has asked the Legislature to call a special session to repeal the state’s combined reporting law. That measure finally closed what was famously called the Las Vegas loophole, which allowed corporations to get away with not paying their full share of corporate income taxes in Wisconsin.

Vukmir’s reasoning? She claimed that the new law was penalizing Harley-Davidson, even though Harley’s management has said that the new law had nothing to do with its financial woes. In fact, Harley has earned more than $100 million in profits in the first six months of this year. Surely the state of Wisconsin should be able to collect its fair share of taxes from the still very profitable manufacturer.

The Nurse Who Opposes Patients’ Rights

Vukmir’s extremism isn’t limited to tax-and-spend issues. Take health care, for example, an issue Vukmir should know a lot about, since she’s a pediatric nurse.

Instead of supporting the interests of patients and her fellow health care workers, time and time again Vukmir has favored the business interests of deep-pocketed insurance companies, the business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), and Pro-Life Wisconsin, the extreme anti-abortion group whose motto is “defending God’s plan.”

Here are a few of Vukmir’s more extreme health care positions:

Vukmir opposed the Mental Health Parity bill, which would require insurance companies to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment. The bill was passed on a bipartisan 57-40 vote and with the support of a wide range of groups, including Aurora Health Care, the Marshfield Clinic, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups.

Who joined Vukmir in opposing the bill? The WMC and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). All of them were looking out for the interests of for-profit insurance companies, not health care delivery institutions that understand the importance of the issue to people with serious illnesses.

But not all Republicans fought against mental health parity. For example, former Republican state Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer is a longtime mental health parity advocate because, as she told the Shepherd in an interview when the Legislature was debating the issue, "When you look at the costs that society pays, that the taxpayer pays, by not covering these illnesses, it's huge."
Forcing those with a mental illness into a public-pay program like Medicaid doesn't save money, either, because Medicaid reimburses at a very low rate. "It is a pass-through on everybody else's hospital bills, clinic bills and doctor's bills," Panzer explained.

Vukmir opposed a bill that requires insurance companies to cover cochlear implants or other hearing devices for children with severely limited hearing. The devices typically cost around $50,000 out of pocket. State Rep. David Cullen, a moderate Democrat who represents Milwaukee’s West Side and West Milwaukee, voted for the bill, saying it would “allow children to keep their hearing, to become members of society, to go to school and keep a job.”


But Vukmir, a former pediatric nurse, didn’t support these children. Instead, she argued to her fellow Assembly members that “You’re voting to take away insurance for employees who work for small businesses.”

Although WMC sided with Vukmir, few of her Republican colleagues supported her. The bill passed the Assembly on a bipartisan 80-16 vote and was signed into law. Just 15 of her colleagues agreed with Vukmir that the interests of insurance companies are more important than children who require the expensive device to hear.

Vukmir voted against the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act, which requires emergency rooms to provide a rape victim with information about emergency contraception and offer her that medication if she chooses it.

Although Vukmir had attempted to stall the bill, it finally passed with a resounding 61 votes from members of both parties in 2008.

Once again, Vukmir was in the minority. In an extraordinary show of support for the measure, Wisconsin Right to Life, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the Wisconsin Hospital Association switched their position from “oppose” to “neutral” and didn’t block the bill. Siding with Vukmir were the ultraconservative fringe groups Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Family Action.

Instead of fighting to protect seniors enrolled in the popular prescription drug program SeniorCare, Vukmir encouraged them to enroll in Medicare Part D instead. "This would make Wisconsin the payer of the last resort, rather than the primary payer," Vukmir said in a 2008 candidate questionnaire. "This could save Wisconsin $75 million."

But Vukmir's math doesn't add up. SeniorCare costs about half as much as Medicare Part D, and it's a much better program. In fact, Wisconsin's SeniorCare, created during Republican Scott McCallum’s administration, is held up as an example of what states should do to ensure that seniors can purchase their medication at affordable prices.

Vukmir’s shocking positions on health issues don’t stop there. She tried to weaken a bill that would allow mothers to breast-feed in public without harassment, opposed the smoking ban even though the American Lung Association supported it, tried to ban hormonal birth control and the morning-after pill from being provided on University of Wisconsin campuses, and supported “conscience protections” for health care professionals who refuse to participate in activities if they run counter to their religious beliefs. And despite Milwaukee’s dangerously high pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates, Vukmir has fought against allowing young low-income men and women to access family planning services such as STD testing, condoms and reproductive health information.

Bad on the Environment

While most Republicans pay close attention to business interests when environmental-protection issues are considered, Vukmir’s dismal record on natural resources is extreme even for the GOP.

In the last legislative session alone, Vukmir opposed a measure that would ensure that railroad employees are simply informed about pesticide application along a railway; opposed regulations that would control harmful invasive species that could be devastating for Wisconsin; and voted against allowing the state to make loans to manufacturers that want to increase their energy efficiency.

Most tellingly, Vukmir voted against the establishment of an independent Department of Natural Resources (DNR) secretary, a measure introduced by her opponent in November, Sen. Sullivan.

What’s so fascinating is that the measure passed both houses of the state Legislature and made it to Gov. Jim Doyle’s desk. Doyle promptly vetoed it, even though he had supported making the change in the past.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The Legislature attempted to override Doyle’s veto and failed. Who sided with Doyle’s power grab? Leah Vukmir.

No wonder why Vukmir’s ratings by the nonpartisan Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters have ranged from a high of 36% to a paltry 12%.

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