Filed under: Budget — Christian Schneider @ 9:59 am
I had to chuckle yesterday when I saw Wispolitics.com’s declaration that Governor Doyle would be delivering some “frank talk” in tonight’s State of the State address. Any time you see a politician declare that they are now going to be “frank” with us, it should set off some alarms. If they have been honest with us all along, why would they now have to declare that they’re telling the truth?
To his credit, as far as I can tell, Doyle himself didn’t use the term “frank,” although he said the speech would be “sober.” In fact, I guarantee the speech will be neither.
A “frank” and “sober” speech would say something like the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Legislature and I have really mangled the state’s finances. Our use of fund raids, delaying payments, one-time budget plugs, issuing debt, and other dubious budget gimmicks has the state in roughly the same condition as Andy Dick with a platinum credit card. The second I signed our last budget adjustment bill, the Fiscal Bureau told us we had a $1.6 billion structural deficit – and that’s even without any increases in funding. And now, we’re going to have to cut some programs to make up for that overspending during the good times. In fact, it’s about time we take this opportunity to balance the state’s books and get us back on financial track.”
Of course, the speech will look nothing like the sort. It will be “sober” talk about how the recession is fully to blame for the state’s woes, and how the gracious and omnipotent President Obama is going to shower us with $3.5 billion in stimulus funds from on high to obfuscate the state’s woeful financial mismanagement. In fact, we don’t even know how to spend all the money we’re going to get – we have to set up a 15 person bureaucracy to figure out where to spend it all. In fact, expect more junk like this, which Doyle actually said:
“If we didn’t have a new president and we didn’t have a recovery act coming, it would be a pretty bleak world that we’re looking into,” Doyle said. “Now we’re looking at a world that’s very, very difficult, but in which there’s some real hope.”
Hope equals tax money. Shouldn’t be any surprise from a governor who has helped drive the state into the fiscal ditch by keeping the spending spigot going well beyond the rate of tax collections and inflation. All this state spending has certainly given him hope – he hopes Congress bails him out of this self-inflicted mess.
So tonight, I expect Doyle to look very serious. He will furrow his brow as he delivers the lugubrious news about the large budget deficit and the collapsing economy. However, the actual content of his speech will be an unrivaled stand-up comedy act. And the person who has to worry the most is the man or woman who will be giving the State of the State address in 2011, as they have to explain how to find the money to prop up all these state programs once the federal money has evaporated.
Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel manages to do the nearly impossible: it almost makes me feel sorry for former Democratic State Representative Dave Travis.
The Journal Sentinel uncovered the fact that Travis retired from the Legislature a couple days early last year, in order to avoid taking a hit on his retirement payments. By leaving the job six days early, Travis dodged the damaging effects of the Wall Street meltdown last year – the same strategy used by hundreds of other state employees.
I realize as a think tank, we’re generally supposed to be critical of legislators. If they’re not up to no good, why do we even exist? But on this one, wasn’t Travis simply doing what any normal, rational human being would do? Can any employee of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel say with a straight face that they would have sat by and watched their retirement take a $70 per month hit on principle?
Then, predictably, the Journal Sentinal goes to the bullpen to call in their phony scandal expert, Jay Heck of Common Cause. Heck (who I happen to like a great deal, incidentally) dutifully delivers this laughable quote:
Jay Heck, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause in Wisconsin, said Travis’ early resignation was legal. But the action will “further undermine people’s confidence in state government,” Heck said.
“In a sense, there’s a take-the-money-and-run aspect to it,” Heck said. “As an elected official, you would have hoped for something better.”
So my confidence in state government is supposed to be eroded because one meaningless, backbenching legislator did the rational thing and retired early to save money? Any word on the hundreds of other state employees who did the same thing and make a lot more than Dave Travis? (Granted, some of the sizzle in this story is due to Travis’ cantankerous declarations that he should have been making more money all along.)
Here at WPRI, we do poll after poll that shows public trust in the Legislature eroding. Much of it is certainly deserved. But a great deal of it is fed by professional scandal mongers whose livelihoods depend on convincing people all their elected officials are corrupt. As a result, the public has more trouble telling when corruption actually occurs.
If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that state employee benefits are too generous. Many of them pay nothing and stand to gain huge payouts upon retirement – which leads to some game playing when it’s time to leave. Travis’ retirement won’t cost the taxpayers an extra dime – the money has already been set aside for years in the state retirement fund. But to make a phony scandal out of Travis doing what any reasonable human would do seems to be a substantial reach.
On the other hand, perhaps we should pay more attention to stories like this, where Democratic Majority Leader Tom Nelson explains that his caucus may still be able to forge ahead with their legislative agenda, despite a special interest laying off staff:
Two Fox Valley legislators think legislation to toughen state drunken driving laws will proceed even as the state office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving announced job cuts.
State Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna, the Assembly majority leader, said MADD’s absence from the debate will not stop legislation.
“We intend to move forward on legislation regardless if groups are staffing up or downsizing,” he said. “It’s clear there has been an outcry from the public to toughen our drunken driving laws and I assume this subject will be addressed sometime this session.”
Oh really? You might be able to move forward on legislation without the help of a special interest group? That’s big of you, Tom Nelson.
Of course, Mothers Against Drunk Driving have a noble purpose – to reduce deaths on our roads. And I certainly agree with their goal of toughening our drunk driving laws in Wisconsin. But let’s not be confused – they are a special interest group looking to change state law, just as any other special interest group is. They have a paid lobbyist and report lobbying expenditures, just like every other lobbying organization. Their goals really aren’t an issue here.
Imagine Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald saying something like, “I know times are tough over at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, but I think we’ll still be able to forge ahead with the Senate Republican tax package anyway.” Reporters would be sleeping outside his office doors, waiting for the chance to dice him up like a pot roast.
So what causes more of an erosion in confidence in the Legislature – Dave Travis retiring early, or the Assembly Majority Leader hinting that his caucus takes its marching orders from special interests? I recognize the media has to cover something, considering we’re in an era of peace and prosperity and all.
Filed under: Crime — Christian Schneider @ 5:13 pm
It has been a month and two days since State Representative Jeff Wood was arrested for drunk driving and possession of marijuana. Just yesterday, he was officially charged with his 3rd OWI and the drug charges. At the time of his arrest, I had a little fun at Wood’s expense, although I now admit I probably went a little overboard.
Needless to say, Wood picked the wrong time to get busted drinking and driving. Newspapers across the state have declared a fatwa against drunk driving, publishing story after story in an attempt to get lawmakers to toughen up Wisconsin’s OWI laws.
But what’s most interesting to me isn’t necessarily the fact that Wood was finally charged – I’m more interested in why we still care about what he did. It’s not like legislators driving drunk is a new phenomenon – one seems to get popped every couple of months. Yet those cases disappear in the public’s consciousness within days. (Except, most notably, in the case of the state’s top cop, former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.)
It’s not even as if Wood’s urinating on the side of the road is unprecedented. Former State Assemblyman Frank Boyle famously ran his car into a concrete barrier and urinated in his pants before cops picked him up. Boyle went on to be re-elected twice more by his constituents – a fate that currently seems out of Wood’s reach.
This brings us to what I’d call “The Wood Paradox,” which is this: The reason Wood’s case is so titillating to the public happens to be due to the least dangerous and offensive thing he actually did. I am referring, of course, to the charge of marijuana possession.
As I mentioned, elected official drunk driving arrests come and go, and usually elicit yawns. But Wood’s became statewide news because he had marijuana – an illegal drug – on his person. Suddenly, this arrest was outside of the mold we have set for elected official arrests, which made it exponentially more newsworthy.
But honestly, what’s really the most dangerous thing he did that night? It was climbing into his car and trying to make a 4 hour drive home while drunk. But somehow, that’s just boring to us now. We need a little sizzle to our legislative arrests.
Which brings me, mercifully, to my main point. Who really cares if a 39 year old guy has marijuana on him? It impacts my life exactly zero percent if a guy decides to go home, smoke up, and watch reruns of The Jeffersons all night. If you’re working the counter at a gas station all day, go ahead – what do I care? Dying of cancer? I’ll buy you a bong. (Naturally, it would be an issue if Wood were high and driving around – but it appears in this instance, alcohol was the drug of choice.)
Normally, when people are compelled to write columns about marijuana use, they have strong opinions about whether the law should either be strengthened or weakened. I, on the other hand, have a different perspective – I’d strenuously argue that the law is pretty much fine the way it is. (When I eventually run for office, my signs will say “Vote Schneider for a stronger status quo!”) It’s just tough enough to scare high school kids wanting to go to college away from trying it, but lenient enough that the people who really want to smoke up don’t really treat it like it’s illegal. It really takes minimal effort to skirt the law.
Marijuana opponents would say that weed makes people stupid and lazy. Perhaps this is true. But in the event these people are already dumb, a good argument could be made that marijuana actually keeps them at home and out of my grocery lines. And that could be a potential benefit. A friend of mine warned that marijuana also makes people think they can play the guitar – and one day, a terrible, high guitar player might attempt to woo my daughter. So, basically, this column could be ruining her life.
What Jeff Wood did was terrible. The fact that he has now been pinched three times for it is even worse. But the fact that he had marijuana on his person really means nothing. It didn’t make a single person in this state either more or less safe – so we should stop feigning indignance at his newfound status as a drug offender. We shouldn’t be saying “oooh, drugs!” instead of “you know… he really could have killed someone.” Drunk driving should never be more socially acceptable than carrying around a dime bag.
Filed under: History — Christian Schneider @ 2:48 pm
Despite the state facing a $5.4 billion deficit, it appears Wisconsin taxpayers are about to become the proud owners of Supreme Video, an adult video store in Oshkosh. In order to clear land to widen U.S. Highway 41, the state Department of Transportation is negotiating to purchase the video store, rather than using eminent domain. There’s no word on whether taxpayers will be able to lay claim to the store’s contents.
Of course, during the negotiations, there appears to be no discussion of what a historical site Supreme Video has become in Wisconsin politics. You may remember that Supreme is the place former Wisconsin State Senator Gerald Lorge was arrested in August of 2000, for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer. From the Wisconsin State Journal’s account:
Former state Sen. Gerald Lorge exposed himself to an undercover police officer at an adult bookstore and then begged the officer not to arrest him, according to a complaint charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior.
The charge was filed Tuesday in Winnebago County Circuit Court involving an Aug. 2 incident at Supreme Video in Oshkosh.
Lorge, a 78-year-old Republican from Bear Creek, faces $ 10,000 in fines and nine months in prison if convicted of the charge.
The complaint said Lorge exposed himself to an undercover police officer while in a booth at the store and asked the officer to perform oral sex on him.
After he was arrested, Lorge told the officer that he had been ”a state senator for 30 years and that this would ruin him,” the complaint said.
Of course, that is the sanitized version of what happened. At some point, I had in my possession the actual police report, which likely remains the funniest legal documents ever produced in Wisconsin. I’d try to quote from it, but I’d want to get it just right, and the actual details probably don’t belong on this blog anyway. Just trust me – it’s one of the more fantastic arrest reports that has ever existed.
In any event, the state is about to own this site. So highway or no highway, I think the DOT could at least commemorate the piece of land with a plaque of some kind. It deserves at least that much.
UPDATE: The text of the criminal complaint has been obtained. Get your popcorn and read it here.
Filed under: Budget — Christian Schneider @ 9:29 am
So a couple of legislators are giving back their pay raises for the next two years. Good for them. If nothing else, it is a symbolic gesture indicating their desire to tighten the state’s belt. But, of course, it will be nothing but symbolic, and really means nothing when it comes to budget time. The money they give back will just go right back into the Legislature’s budget, and will be used for staff pay raises, mailings, or other ongoing spending needs. Which brings up an interesting question – can you think of any worse place for a legislator to send their pay raise? Wouldn’t the money be much better off going to a legitimate charity, like a church, homeless shelter, or the Detroit Lions? (I think newly minted State Senator Randy Hopper chose the charity option.) Sending money back to the state is akin to casting it into a fiscal abyss.
Again, I don’t begrudge elected officials for turning the pay raise down. Good for them – although I’d love to see one do it without a press release attached. That press release is going to cost them $5,000 over the next two years, and won’t be remembered by a soul come next election time. Remember – the pay raises were also an issue in 2005 when the last round of increases were passed, and a number of legislators turned the pay raise down. Quick – go ahead and list who they are. Didn’t think so.
Keep in mind, these current pay raises were passed in 2007, along with a bundle of other state employee packages. Yet nobody seems to be complaining about the other 70,000 employees with generous raises – it’s much easier to target the 132 legislators. It seems the time to complain about these pay bumps was a year and a half ago, not now. And for most of these legislators, they were re-elected with the voters knowing full well their salaries were going up. It’s not like it was a secret – it appears the voters just don’t care.
Which brings me to the true irritation about this whole issue – the way the press is covering the pay raises. As I mentioned, it’s really a non-issue – legislative pay raises are like blaming the beating of a mosquito’s wings for climate change. Yet the media are covering the issue like it’s the Scopes Monkey Trial.
The Wisconsin State Journal first reported that Senator Jon Erpenbach and Representative Bob Ziegelbauer were giving their raises back on December 28th. Fine – it’s a slow news period, and amounted to not much more than a blurb. Then they followed up with an editorial. Then, on January 3, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel exhumed the story, adding Senator Dan Kapanke to the list. The Racine Journal Times chimed in on January 5th. Other local papers followed.
A friend of mine in the capitol told me that one paper has actually put one of their reporters on the task of surveying each and every legislator to see if they’re going to take the raise – an enormously time consuming endeavor. He mentioned that his legislator boss doesn’t mind talking to the statewide press, as long as it’s about something that matters. His office got three statewide press calls the other day on the pay raise issue, when they rarely get calls for any other issue. Where are the reporters surveys on what legislators think about health care? Or the environment? Or increased state debt? Or the state’s atrocious budgeting situation? No – they get a survey on pay increases passed two years ago, that apply to thousands of other state employees.
The emphasis on frivolous issues like this one actually do have consequences. The public is pretty much in the dark on the state budget – so focusing on meaningless issues like the legislative pay raise actually informs their opinion of state spending. Now, they actually believe the $5.4 billion state budget can be fixed just by denying pay raises to legislators. Don’t believe me? Sit and answer phones in a legislative office for a couple hours.
This also clarifies a recent trend in newspapers – reporting as activism. You may have noticed the Journal-Sentinel dumping millions of gallons of ink to change the state’s drunk driving laws. They are also on a mission against Bisphenol A, whatever that is. The State Journal raged against the Frankenstein veto in issue after issue, and now has taken up the cause of eliminating judicial elections. Clearly, papers pick their causes and attempt to influence lawmakers (a right that they would love to deny other businesses through tighter campaign finance reform restrictions, incidentally.) But what ever happened to just telling me what’s happening in the world.? Dude, just give me the news.
I don’t mean to defend legislators so effusively – most of them are boobs. But I actually think their willingess to accept pay raises might turn out to be a good test. Essentially, it’s a measure of how much heat they can take – whether they can stand a week of bad press in the face of an issue to which the press is hostile. If they cave on this, they’ll cave on any other issue the press disapproves of – and those issues generally aren’t favorable to conservatives.
So good for the legislators giving their money back – the state will be happy to spend it elsewhere. Hope that $5,000 press release was worth it, when your kids need college tuition. When they’re freezing in their dorm, they can wrap themselves in a quilt of your fawning press clippings.
Filed under: Budget — Christian Schneider @ 10:25 am
Once again, WisconsinEye is doing the Lord’s work by bringing us our Wisconsin elected officials live and uncut. On inauguration day 2009, the channel conducted a number of interviews with legislators, in which they ruminate on the upcoming legislative session.
One interview that caught my eye in particular was a 17-minute sit-down with State Senator Pat Krietlow of Chippewa falls. I think this interview, ably conducted by Stacy Forster of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, perfectly captures some of the windbaggery that Wisconsin residents are going to see from their elected officials in the near future. Nothing against Senator Krietlow – his interview just happened to be the only one I caught (or could stand, for that matter), but I think his answers are illustrative of the rhetoric we’re going to see for the next two years.
So, without further windbaggery on my part, here are some highlights:
Forster asks Krietlow what his new position (Senate President Pro-Tem) entails: Instead of giving a quick answer (waiting for Fred Risser to keel over at the podium), he goes on and on about how it is a “leadership in waiting” position. This is like those guys in college who said they were majoring in “pre-med,” even though there is no such major, and it’s clear that no med school in America would let them within 10 feet of their buildings.
He goes on to say how important it is to follow the procedure according to the rules – when, in fact, all the senators know the rules – it’s up to the presiding officer to figure out how to bend the rules to benefit his or her side.
Forster: Will there be tax and fee increases to fill the $5.4 billion budget deficit?
Kreitlow: We certainly hope not. That will have to be the “last of the last resort.” (Keep this in mind later.)
Kreitlow goes on to say there are ways of capturing new revenues without “new taxes or fees.” Perhaps the state can begin xeroxing hundred dollar bills. He goes on to say “it’s not about spending less or more, it’s about spending smarter.” I’m glad he put it that way, because before I was under the impression that Wisconsin had high taxes.
He rolls on, explaining how important it is to go through the budget “deliberately,” and “line by line.” I’m pretty sure the speed at which the budget is reviewed by senators isn’t the problem. When the houses are split, the budget marches on for months and months – yet those are some of the worst budgets we see. I’d rather see a budget that’s fast and good.
Forster: Republicans are raising warning bells about how new taxes are coming. Is it too early for that kind of talk?
Kreitlow thinks it is “unfortunate” that on the “very first day of the session” Republicans were warning of higher taxes. Of course, he thinks that is “unfortunate” because it isn’t flattering to his side. Had Minority Leader Fitzgerald been talking about how badly we need universal, government-run health care, Kreitlow probably wouldn’t have thought it so inappropriate. Of course, warning people of impending tax increases naturally means you’re “attacking” Democrats. If these warnings had no basis, why is Kreitlow so bent out of shape?
He also mentions that voters “sent a message” this last election that they didn’t want partisanship anymore. Actually, the voters’ message was that they do want partisanship – which is why they gave Democrats full control of everything in the state. It’s just entertaining that he immediately conflates “Democrat” with “bipartisan.” Might want to ask Chuck Chvala about that.
Forster: Is the hospital tax on the table?
Kreitlow: Last session, it was “unfairly tarred as some kind of tax increase.” But you know why it’s not a tax increase? Because it brings in more dollars. Which…is…exactly what a tax increase does. So apparently, it’s not a tax increase because it lets us spend more money. But it’s not about spending more or less, it’s about spending smarter. (Incidentally, spending more appears to always be “smarter.”)
Of course, the line that he has been fed is that all this federal revenue will fall out of the sky once we tax health care in Wisconsin, which will pay back these hospitals. But the new revenue will go primarily to hospitals with high Medicaid caseloads, so consumers at hospitals with low MA rates will get stuck with the bill. In this case, making health care more affordable means making it more expensive, as the tax will be passed on by hospitals to their consumers. It’s not Kreitlow’s fault that he wasn’t in the Senate when the state counted on $175 million in federal intragovernmental transfer funds (IGT) to balance the budget, only to have those funds disappear when the feds pulled them back. That caused a big problem for the state, as it had to restructure its debt to make up for the hole – causing the state to have to pay more in debt service in the long term.
Kreitlow goes on to say that we need tax credits to get businesses going again. He doesn’t mention what any of those may be.
Forster: Are Senate Democrats going to bring back the automatic gas tax increase?
Kreitlow says that it’s time to admit that it was a mistake to do away with increasing gas taxes automatically, without legislators having to vote on the increase. He says – and I am not making this up – that forcing the legislature to vote on gas tax increases was “putting politics back in the transportation budgeting process.” (He may want to make a phone call to Jim Doyle, who signed the bill into law.) So, basically, asking legislators to actually vote to increase taxes is making it “political,” whereas allowing taxes to go up automatically is not political at all. In actuality, automatic indexing merely absolves legislators from having to take tough votes, which Kreitlow apparently doesn’t appreciate. Plus, when looking at the shabby state of the state’s transporation fund, he may want to recognize that Jim Doyle has transferred $1.1 billion out of the fund in the last 3 budgets to balance the general fund – which dwarfs any revenue loss from the repeal of automatic indexing. (A former colleague reminds me that Kreitlow argued against eliminating the “Frankenstein Veto” because he wanted the governor to have the ability to dip further into the transportation fund.)
Forster: What about health care reform?
Kreitlow says he wants to give the new President and Congress a chance to take up health care reform, which is really a polite way of saying he would like to have been asked a different question. He says the state may have to take action if it turns out that the Democratic U.S. Congress is as gridlocked as it was when Republicans ran it, apparently unaware that Democrats have controlled Congress since 2006.
One wonders where this deference to Congress was in the last budget, when Kreitlow voted in favor of a $15.2 billion tax increase in order to fund Healthy Wisconsin, a single-payer government-run health system. It appears Kreitlow thought he was going to get away with not talking about HW, but Forster presses him on whether the plan could return. He says it could, if Congress doesn’t act. Kreitlow says that HW had things that all 18 Democratic senators wanted to change (number of Democrat amendments to the plan when it passed in 2007: zero), in an attempt to distance himself somewhat from the plan for which he voted. So, if you’re keeping score at home, Kreitlow admits he voted for a flawed plan that would raise taxes by $15.2 billion – simply because they never thought it would actually become law, and they needed a talking point come election time. (Little did they know it would eventually become the albatross around the neck of many of their candidates.)
Kreitlow says Healthy Wisconsin wasn’t defended from attacks very well. Apparently, pointing out the massive flaws in the program, as WPRI is wont to do, constitutes an “attack.” To his credit, he lists Health Savings Account tax deductibility as something the state should institute.
Forster asks what new bills we could see coming out of an all-Democrat legislature.
Kreitlow says there were a lot of common sense bills that didn’t pass last session because of partisan squabbling, like insurance mandates for autism (making health plans more expensive), for cochlear implants (making health plans more expensive), and banning phosphorous in fertilizer (making lawn care more expensive.) Basically, Kreitlow is irritated that much more “common sense” increased government regulation was bottled up by partisanship.
He mentions that Democrats will attempt to raise the minimum wage, telling the people that elected them “someone is watching out for you now.” Unfortunately, if the minimum wage increase passes, they will be watching many of those people head to the unemployment lines.
Forster asks about the issue her newspaper is pushing, tougher penalties for drunk driving. Kreitlow says we need more treatment, not tougher penalties. Judges can already mandate treatment to offenders, but Kreitlow thinks we need more of it.
And with that, the interview ends. Again, not to be too tough on Kretilow, because he just happened to be in the clip I watched – but this is going to be a lot of the rhetoric we’ll see in the upcoming months. For the record, in the interview, he mentions no fewer than three “last resort” tax increases: The hospital tax increase, gas tax increase, and the Healthy Wisconsin tax increase – voting for each of these seems about as painful to Kreitlow as taking a nap.