"We have come into a really serious and extraordinary set of economic circumstances in this country," said Governor Doyle as he told reporters the state’s budget deficit could be $ 5 billion.
Privately, he warned legislators the amount could be larger.
While contemplating the enormity of the task ahead, legislators took time to think about who to choose as our leaders.
Every two years, after Election Day, the Legislature chooses new leaders.
Leadership in the Assembly and the Senate is chosen by the members of each of four bodies – the majority and minority parties in the Assembly and the same in the Senate.
Following the election, the Senate Democrats retained their 18 – 15 majority and the Assembly Democrats became the majority with a 52 – 46 split. The Assembly also has one independent member.
Who is in the majority and who is in leadership is important.
The majority party members chair the committees. Committee chairs determine the bills to hear in their committees. Majority party leaders determine what legislation will come to a vote by the full Senate or Assembly.
I was elected by unanimous vote of my fellow Senators to serve as the Senate Democratic Caucus Vice-Chair.
The Caucus is the formal organization of the 18 Democrats in the State Senate. At our Caucus meetings we communicate our different viewpoints which are shaped by the area of the state we represent. And each of us is committed to fighting for our folks back home.
As I accepted the Caucus leadership position I urged my colleagues to use our diversity as a powerful force for change.
Our diversity is our great strength - from the rolling hills of Monroe and Buffalo County to the Central Sand County. From the north woods to the North Shore; from the Mississippi River to River Hills.
We lead in challenging times. Our challenge is to build consensus; through the different districts; though the different cultures of our great state.
We face unprecedented challenges. We also face great opportunity.
The difficult problems – from health care reform, education funding to balancing our budget are problems we must tackle together.
In the coming weeks we will learn more about the depth of our state’s financial crisis. We will begin to define the problem and possible solutions.
The budget process is now in the ‘behind the scenes’ phase as agencies work to deliver a budget to the Governor reflecting the additional ten-percent cut he ordered.
By late February, the Governor’s budget will be delivered to the Legislature. The powerful Joint Finance Committee will be charged with sifting through the details of the budget and making changes. The Finance Committee will begin the process with state-wide hearings asking citizens for input into decisions.
The first step in this process must be taking the problems to the people and involving them in a real discussion of possible solutions to very complex problems. Our challenge will be taking all those valuable opinions and building consensus around the state and within the Capitol.
Democracy works best when we all get involved. And power is most effective in solving our complex public policy problems when it is shared.
I feel much as Thomas Jefferson did in 1815. “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”
State Senator Kathleen Vinehout serves the 31st Senate District. She can be contacted at Senator Kathleen Vinehout State Capitol P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 or 877-763-6636 (toll free) or email me at Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.