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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Will the Real Alberta Darling Please Stand Up?

Flip-flops and bad votes triggered her recall

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Back in 1990, when Alberta Darling won her first election to the state Assembly, the media glowingly referred to her as a "liberal" "pro-choicer" who recognized the wisdom of gun control.

Twenty-one years later, Darling, now representing the North Shore in the state Senate, is more likely to generate headlines for her political flip-flops, support for Gov. Scott Walker and Congressman Paul Ryan's ultraconservative policies, and the number of protesters active in her district.

It's been a hard fall for Darling, who is facing a recall election on Aug. 9.

The longtime Republican legislator who won re-election in 2008, a great year for Democrats in Wisconsin and across the country, is in a dead heat with her challenger, Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay, according to a poll released last week.

Certainly, most of the anger directed toward Darling is due to her leadership on the Joint Finance Committee in ruthlessly pushing through Walker's extreme agenda at the same time the governor's disapproval rating in the state is a whopping 59%.

But Darling has done a lot of damage herself. Although she's respected by her peers for being a formidable fund-raiser who represents a wealthy district that gives overwhelmingly to Republicans, she's also known for not doing her homework before committee meetings.

Then there's her shift to the conservative edge of her party now that being a moderate, pro-choice Republican is out of fashion.

As co-chair of the powerful budget-crafting Joint Finance Committee (JFC), Darling proved that in addition to signing off on Walker's unpopular budget items, she was more than willing to author amendments that were unusually extreme—at times more extreme than Walker's policies, in fact.

You won't find any of Darling's extremism in her soft-focus campaign materials, though, as she's quick to spout bland platitudes and highlight her more moderate credentials.

That leaves constituents to ask: Who is the real Alberta Darling—the moderate pro-choice former public school teacher or the ultraconservative ideologue who's rubber-stamping the policies of a deeply unpopular governor?

Flip-Flop on Police Pay

Darling's campaign did not respond to the Shepherd's request for an interview.

But a review of Darling's political career and recent votes on the JFC and in the state Senate show that Darling is a master of playing all sides of an issue even though her votes consistently support the Republican Party's most extreme policies.

Take police pay, for example. Few issues have infuriated Milwaukeeans like the longtime policy of continuing to pay Milwaukee police officers while they are appealing their firings. After much wrangling with the politically powerful police union and their Republican allies, in 2008 Democrats passed a law that ended payment of officers who were terminated if they had been charged with felonies or serious misdemeanors. A year later, they strengthened that policy by ending the pay of officers when they were fired, period. The new policy has already saved taxpayers close to $300,000.

That seemed to settle the matter, until after midnight on June 3, when the JFC passed an amendment authored by Darling and her co-chair, state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), that would allow fired Milwaukee cops to be paid once again.

Although the full Legislature approved that provision in the budget, it was so unpopular that Darling—feeling the heat of the recall—asked the governor to veto her own amendment.

Which begs the question: Is this yet another example of Darling not doing her homework before taking a vote? Or did she just sign on to Vos' amendment to curry favor with the police union and do the bidding of her party chiefs?

Playing Games With Women's Health

Perhaps no flip-flop is more personal than Darling's votes on women's health. In her early years as a legislator, Darling's pro-choice stand—and her history as a board member of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin—were an asset.

But pro-choice Republican women were drummed out of the party. So instead of losing her seat to a pro-life rival in a Republican primary—like Sen. Peggy Rosenzweig (R-Wauwatosa) did in 2002—Darling changed her position on abortion and women's health. Darling has shifted so far to the right that she earned a qualified endorsement from Wisconsin Right to Life in the 2008 election.

Darling seemed to take out her wrath on her former pro-choice allies in this year's budget. Darling personally drafted a motion that ended state support for Planned Parenthood centers. These nine centers can no longer participate in the state's family planning program, which provides sexually transmitted disease treatment, cancer screenings and contraceptive services.

But Darling's anti-woman votes didn't stop there. She voted to restrict eligibility for BadgerCare's family planning program, which was created by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. The program not only helps low-income men and women receive quality, comprehensive health care, but it saves the state a lot of money—about $140 million in 2008 alone—and thousands of unintended pregnancies. Darling also voted to bar men from the program, denying them access to STD and cancer screenings. Darling's changes are so severe that Wisconsin risks losing federal money for the program, a much-needed source of funds for this supposedly "broke" state.

Going for broke, Darling also signed off on a provision that bans University of Wisconsin medical students from choosing to be trained in abortion care.



Concealed Carry Changes Can Wait

It was no surprise that Republicans would craft some sort of concealed carry legislation once they took control of the state Legislature and governor's office last fall. And just as she has in the past, Darling voted for this year's concealed carry bill.

Unfortunately, the new concealed carry system is so lenient and has so many loopholes that Wisconsinites can easily qualify for a permit and carry their weapons just about anywhere. And after all of the noise about requiring permit holders to take a gun-safety class, the requirement is so lax that taking an online course could suffice.

Gun-control advocates are obviously upset. But so, too, are law enforcement personnel, since they fear that concealed weapons will ultimately cause more harm, and because the penalty for illegally carrying a concealed weapon is just a misdemeanor. In addition, the bill does nothing to cut down on a huge problem in Milwaukee known as straw purchases—buying a weapon for someone who isn't able to legally possess a firearm.

Business owners aren't happy, either, since they will have to craft a weapons policy and post a sign if they don't want to allow guns on their premises. And as we've seen in other states with the same policy, gun owners are quite happy to boycott a business if it doesn't allow customers or employees to pack heat.

After declining to add amendments to the bill that would fix these problems, Darling had promised to introduce a separate bill that would raise the penalty for illegally carrying a concealed weapon to a felony and tackle the straw-purchase problem. Indeed, Darling came through and the bill received a public hearing on June 21. But after getting the desired media coverage that makes her look like a moderate, thoughtful legislator, Darling failed to champion her bill. It's stalled in committee.

Darling's 'Hero,' Paul Ryan

At a recent fund-raiser Darling laughed off a suggestion that her support for Paul Ryan's plans to change Medicare to a voucher plan and Medicaid to a block grant—neither of which would fully cover the rising cost of health care—would hurt her. She lavished praise on Ryan, calling him a "hero" and saying that he's "doing the exact right thing" and that she'd stand with him "anytime, anywhere."

But unlike Darling, the public opposes Ryan's plans to voucherize Medicare. According to a June poll conducted by Bloomberg News, 55% of folks who would not vote for President Obama—that would be Republicans and some independents—would not support a presidential candidate who supported Ryan's Medicare plans. Closer to home, a May survey from Public Policy Polling found that Ryan, once a golden boy in Wisconsin, had a 41% favorability rating and a 46% unfavorability rating among state voters.

Not surprisingly, Darling has backtracked on her earlier statements of support for Ryan and his Medicare voucher scheme. When pressed by a reporter, her campaign manager said she now has "no opinion on the matter."

Scott Walker and Alberta Darling's 'Best Budget'

"This is the best budget I've seen since I entered the Legislature," crowed state Sen. Alberta Darling, the co-chair of the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) who is facing a recall election on Aug. 9.

Perhaps Darling was so enthusiastic about the state budget because she has raised almost $1 million for her own campaign war chest since the beginning of the year—about half of that raised while she was putting the final touches on the budget.

Some lowlights from the Darling-drafted $66 billion biennial state budget, which raises taxes on low-wage Wisconsinites while handing corporations and the wealthiest residents $2.3 billion in tax breaks over the next decade:

  • Darling cut $800 million from state aid for K-12 public education while limiting the amount of local property taxes that can be raised for schools. The total damage to schools: $1.6 billion.
  • Darling capped enrollment in Family Care, which provides long-term support for people with disabilities.
  • Darling supported a wide-ranging higher education amendment that cuts University of Wisconsin System funding by $250 million and allows state schools to raise tuition 5.5% but doesn't add new funds for financial aid. She also tried to end the WiscNet Internet co-op that is vital to researchers, a provision that was later taken out of the budget.
  • Darling doubled the 10% cut advocated by Gov. Scott Walker for tobacco use control programs.
  • Darling gave the unelected secretary of the Department of Health Services unprecedented unilateral power to change Medicaid programs—including BadgerCare—along with a $467 million shortfall that the secretary can make up as he sees fit.
  • Darling cut aid for public transportation by 10% and killed off regional transit authorities (RTAs), while boosting support for highway and state road projects. Darling even voted to force local governments to use private contractors on their road projects that cost more than $100,000 instead of using their own employees.
  •  Darling voted to expand taxpayer-supported private and religious schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to Milwaukee County and Racine.
  • Darling raised taxes for more than 150,000 low-wage workers by cutting $41 million in support for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Darling lowered capital gains tax rates on Wisconsin investments, even though there is no evidence that the perk will spur job creation. In 2011-2012, the state will lose $16.1 million in tax revenue; by 2016, when the legislation is fully phased in, the state will lose a whopping $100 million annually.
  •  Darling signed off on tax breaks for corporations, including a late-night amendment for manufacturers even if they don't add any new jobs. Once it's fully phased in, the state will lose $129 million per year in revenue from the manufacturer-friendly tax break alone.
  • Darling voted to reinstate for-profit bail bondsmen in the state, even though they are often linked to corrupt practices with judges. That, too, was vetoed by Walker.
  • Darling voted for an amendment that would help large breweries while harming Wisconsin's small craft breweries. 
  • Amid chants of "shame," Darling and her Republican colleagues had to be escorted out of the state Capitol and into chartered buses after voting to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

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