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Is State Government Going To Be Toxic for Another Two Years?

Despite earning more votes, Democrats are in the minority

Nov. 19, 2012
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On Nov. 6, Democratic candidates for Assembly offices in Wisconsin earned almost 200,000 more votes than their Republican counterparts, yet they’ll be in the minority in that chamber and in the state Senate for the next two years—and probably the next 10 years as well.

Republicans will have an 18-15 majority in the state Senate and a 59-40 majority in the state Assembly, a result of the lopsided legislative redistricting map created and passed by Republicans last year. The map will be in effect for a decade, until the next U.S. Census is taken.

Both parties are talking about bipartisanship and moderation in the next legislative session, a less toxic, hard-line approach than the one taken in 2011 and 2012.

Yet signs of sincere bipartisanship were hard to find last week.

On Friday, Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced that he’d refuse to let the state set up its own health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, and would let the federal government set it up instead.

In his letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Walker complained that establishing a state-created exchange would still not give Wisconsinites “meaningful control over the health care policies and services sold to Wisconsin residents.”

Therefore, Walker decided to concede total control to the Obama administration.

Wisconsinites from across the political spectrum had urged Walker to assume local control of the insurance exchanges. Even the conservative lobbying groups Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce as well as the state arm of the National Federation of Independent Business had supported the state exchanges. But after Walker’s Friday announcement, the reaction fell predictably along party lines, with Democrats blasting Walker’s decision and Republicans applauding it, although the response from the business and health care community was mixed—disappointed at best.

And in yet another sign of partisan squabbling, it’s been reported that the new Republican Assembly Speaker, Robin Vos (R-Burlington), called the selection of Milwaukee Democrat Chris Larson as Senate minority leader a gift from God.

Larson shrugged off Vos’s belittling comment and told the Shepherd that he’s “always been an underdog” and that he was confident that both parties “will find a lot of things to work on” in the coming session. He said the first call he made upon being selected Senate minority leader was to Walker and that Democrats have been reaching out to Republican leaders in recent days.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.


Larson: ‘They’re Going To Get a Big Surprise’

Larson, a first-term senator, said the Democrats were still setting their agenda for the next session, but that he hoped that his party could work constructively with the Republicans where they have common ground.

Larson said that he didn’t want to assume that Walker and Republican legislators would push a hard-right agenda, even though nine lawmakers have said—outrageously—that they want to arrest any federal official who implements health care reform in Wisconsin.

“They own the next two years,” Larson said. “They’ve got the votes. Scott Walker and the Republicans have the votes to do whatever it is they think they should be doing. But it’s our hope and our duty to make sure that they’re not focused on right-wing, extreme pet projects, but actually try to do things like getting people back to work with livable wages, making sure our education system is a priority again and making sure that we have accountability and transparency throughout government.”

Larson warned that an extremely ideological agenda could damage Walker’s re-election prospects in 2014, if he chooses to run for governor again, since he would face the same electorate that supported President Barack Obama, Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin and legislative Democrats by healthy margins in the Nov. 6 election.

That said, Democratic legislators don’t have a whole lot of influence while in the minority. But the Democrats’ strong showing on Nov. 6 means that they can take their case to a sympathetic public.

In the last session, the Republican-led Legislature gave Democrats very little or no role in the legislative process. Big bills, like Walker’s public union-busting collective bargaining bill, were passed on party-line votes and over the heated objections of Democrats and their allies.

Larson said the Democrats would make every effort to make their views known to their Republican colleagues.

“If they’re going to view us as a piece of furniture, they’re going to get a big surprise,” Larson said. “Democrats got more votes in the election and we are going to speak up.”


On Tap: Mining, Taxes, Education

Larson said a good test of bipartisanship would be the forthcoming iron ore mining bill, currently being shaped by Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) while the Democrats hang onto their one-vote majority in the Senate.

Republicans had offered a bill that was highly favorable to mining interests last year, but it was scuttled when Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center offered a more moderate, bipartisan bill with Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch of Poplar. Since Republicans only had a one-vote majority in the Senate at the time, Schultz’s opposition to the original bill killed it.

Larson said Cullen had been working hard to create a bill that includes input from legislators from both parties, mining interests and environmentalists. The Republicans’ previous bill, on the other hand, didn’t even have an author attached to it and had been largely written by the mining interests that had wanted to set up operations in northern Wisconsin.

“There’s a clear contrast between the two bills,” Larson said, adding that he hoped the Legislature would adopt Cullen’s bipartisan version.

In a Wispolitics.com forum held last week in Milwaukee, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood) offered up their views on the bipartisan efforts in the next legislative session.

Kooyenga said there was some “low-hanging fruit” that Republicans and Democrats could work on in the future, such as education reform and revising some criminal statutes.

“It’s all about relationships,” Kooyenga said, and urged his fellow legislators to keep talking about the state’s issues.

He said the Republicans would offer middle-class tax cuts in the coming months since the state is on track to have an additional $1 billion in revenue in the next budget cycle.

Pasch said she was “cautiously optimistic” about bipartisan efforts in the Assembly even though a few bills in the previous Republican-dominated session were so extreme—such as the voter ID law and the collective bargaining bill—that they are now tied up in the courts.

“If you do things in a way that doesn’t allow for inclusion and good dialog back and forth, there will be consequences to pay,” Pasch said. “And we’ll have bills that are legally challenged and which don’t serve the people well.”

But that was then. This is now.

“This is a new class,” Pasch said. “These are new opportunities. A lot of people ran on the premise that they were going to work across the aisle, that they were going to be bipartisan. And I think that the people of Wisconsin are demanding it. They are tired of the partisan bickering and they want us to work together. We have to work together.”


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