Wisconsin Legislative Outlook: Skirmishing Over Substance

 

Wisconsin was the second to last state in the Union to pass a budget this year because of partisan wrangling (Massachusetts brought up the rear), and the state's lawmakers and lobbyists say the acrimonious climate in Madison that caused the long budget stalemate is likely to spill over into year 2000. Because of this, few people expect much in the way of legislative accomplishments in the next twelve months.

With those mostly unpleasant memories in the minds of policy-makers, lobbyists and Capitol observers, the tentative outlook surrounding the return of the legislature Jan. 25 is for little in the way of accomplishment in the year 2000.

There is almost no chance that any big-ticket items will pass both houses and land on GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson's desk in the politically supercharged climate of an election year. But some believe bipartisan compromise could emerge on lesser measures such as privacy legislation to curb wide dissemination of personal information in government files.

The major reasons for the general pessimism:

  • Divided government. Thompson is a Republican in office since 1987. Republicans control the Assembly by a healthy margin. Democrats control the state Senate by just one vote.
  • Personality conflicts among the top officeholders. Thompson is a super-powerful governor who says this is his last term but nevertheless likes to tease possible successors by hinting of one more run. The Assembly is led by Republican Scott Jensen, a former Thompson aide who is preparing to run for governor in 2002. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, a Madison Democrat who got swamped by Thompson in the 1994 election, sees the Senate as the only place where Democratic interests can stop bad Republican ideas.
  • Chvala and Thompson worked together through most of 1999, but that relationship fell apart toward the end of the year when Thompson vetoed some major Democratic initiatives and the Senate rejected a Thompson appointee and forced the retirement of a low-level cabinet officer.
  • Early campaign maneuvering for the November elections. The Legislature elected in November 2000 will take the first whack at the once-a-decade task of redrawing legislative districts, and the party strategists are going all out.

Thompson summed it up last month when signing the rebate bill. Looking forward to early 2000, when he would usually unveil a ``mini-budget'' of policy and financial proposals around the same time as his state of the state message, the governor suggested a climate of ill will would force a different tack.

"I question whether or not this Legislature -- in an election year -- could handle another budget," said Thompson, a former GOP legislative leader. He referred to the long-running debate over the $41 billion, 1999-2001 state budget, which was months overdue. "Right now, I'm leaning very strongly toward not introducing another budget bill."

"The governor has a tendency to change his mind," said one top Democratic senator, Russ Decker of Schofield. But he admitted: "There's some animosity. .. (The climate's) not as good as it has been." Decker placed most of the blame on Jensen, saying his Republican predecessor was less partisan simply because ``he wasn't running for governor.''

Steve Baas, a spokesman for Jensen, said the Assembly is passing bills but the "do-nothing" Democrats in the Senate keep burying them. "Chvala is exerting his power to say no. We'll keep piling bills up on his doorstep like cordwood."

A top Thompson aide said this week Thompson hasn't changed his thinking about the "mini-budget."

Executive assistant Kevin Keane said that didn't mean Thompson would simply avoid the legislature, but rather that he planned to introduce a series of separate initiatives.

Keane wouldn't provide details, but administration officials hint Thompson's separate proposals likely would include possible further tax cuts to improve the state's high-tax climate, an education-improvement package that could include tougher teacher standards, and a money bill to pay the cost of Wisconsin's ever-growing prison population.

Lawmakers left Madison divided on:

  • The nature of tax relief. Democrats generally favor property tax relief while Republicans favor income tax cuts;
  • Comprehensive campaign finance reform. Each blamed the other for failing to compromise;
  • State prison policy that sends about 4,000 prisoners out of state. Republicans want to lease a privately built prison for the first time, but many Democrats worry about a precedent that could lead to privately run prisons. This week's disturbance at a privately run Tennessee prison housing 1,510 Wisconsin inmates sharpened the debate;
  • And new criminal sentences to accompany ''truth in sentencing'' that takes effect Dec. 31. Many Democrats sought delay in the effective date to satisfy concerns of defense attorneys and others that the state judicial and penal system wasn't ready for such rigid sentencing. Republicans vowed to go forward with the politically popular idea of criminals serving their full sentences.

All of those issues will return in some form when the Legislature returns. The first order of business -- barring a last-ditch compromise and the unlikely holiday return of the Legislature -- will be ''truth in sentencing'' implementation. Without it, many predict chaos in the courts and an even more crowded prison system.

Meanwhile, the two houses are putting finishing touches on election-year legislative agendas.

Assembly Republicans are putting together a package of business and individual income tax cuts. The business tax cut package could total about $100 million. The individual income tax cut proposal is still in the works. ``The economy continues to do well because we continue to cut taxes,'' Baas said.

Senate Democrats will continue to highlight their wishes for more property tax relief. They're preparing a resolution that could lead to a constitutional change allowing more targeted property tax relief. Without some action, Decker said, property taxes are ``going to level off then they're going to go up again.''

If an even higher projected surplus emerges (the budget provides for more than $1 billion in various forms of tax relief over the next two years and revenue forecasts are still rosy despite that), next year's legislative debate could be even more of a repeat performance of what happened in 1999.

 
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