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.