Never did I dream that getting a state budget would be so difficult. Wisconsin is the only state with a July 1st deadline that doesn’t have its budget passed. While progress has been made, the end is not in sight.
The talk in the Assembly has moved from ‘no new taxes under any circumstances” to “no budget”. After all, why do we need a budget?
Unlike other states, Wisconsin continues to operate on last year’s budget until the legislature finishes its work. Why not just continue under last year’s numbers?
Has it really been a year since I assumed the responsibilities of State Senator? The time has flown. It seems like only yesterday I would look over my shoulder when someone said “Good Morning Senator.” It was hard to make the transition from dairy farmer to State Senator – and I am glad I kept my barn boots.
There is no other job quite like that of an elected official - although Den Mother might come close. The job is fast paced and filled with new people and new ideas.
For me, the job is all about service; and it is in the role of one who serves that I draw the most satisfaction.
“Nothing’s for sure but death and taxes,” so the old adage goes. Recently death and taxes were the topics of debate. Two committees upon which I serve spent hours hearing testimony on both eventualities.
Taxes were the subject of an extended hearing that brought out assessors, local government and lawyers who represent high value properties. The dispute was over the role of local tax review board. This is a board made up of local people who review appeals about the accuracy of a property tax assessment. The board was being bypassed by some large property owners and a proposed new law sought to remedy that situation.
It seems some large property-owning companies had decided it was better to go straight to court to challenge an appraisal for property than to appear, like everyone else, before the local property tax review board.
Delays in completing the budget have pushed legislative work back. With the budget passed, committee work is moving forward in earnest. Committees in the legislature are where the real work gets done.
When a bill comes to the Senate floor for a vote, much of the time Senators know the outcome of the vote before it happens. That is because of all the work done by a committee.
All legislators are assigned to committees. Some are small, some are quite large. Most of the committees in the Senate are very active. All of them share something in common.
“It’s time to fix a convoluted and out-dated school funding formula.” the School Superintendent testified before the Senate Committee on Education. He continued “The current budget supports wealthy districts more than poor districts, when the poor districts serve students with more challenging needs. What’s fair about that?”
The occasion was a recent hearing on a bill directing the legislature to solve the school funding problems. The bill was sponsored by 59 legislators and did not include any specifics for reform but was more of what I call a “Get R’ Done” bill. It is a first step toward recognizing the problems and making a commitment to solve them.
If public interest is any indication of the need for change, this hearing shouted reform. Several hundred people attended the hearing; so many, that folks were sitting on the floor, stuffed into the hallways and moved to another room with a video hook up.
In the post-911 world, many people search for ways to let our military personnel know how much we appreciated their service. Here in Wisconsin, the state created a program known as the Wisconsin GI Bill to assist veterans in attending college. The bill was signed into law in 2005 and beginning this fall offered 100-percent tuition remission to Wisconsin veterans.
Last week the committee I chair, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education, held a public hearing to examine how the program was working. What committee members and the public learned was that we, as a state, have not kept our promise to adequately fund the program.
Not keeping our promise to veterans is not new in this country. Prior to the federal GI Bill, returning veterans were given $60 and a train ticket home. The 1944 GI Bill addressed a looming economic crisis by providing home loans, unemployment pay and higher education. The unemployment pay was used very little, but by 1947, 49 percent of all college admissions were veterans.
Imagine a world in which only a machine answered the phone when you went to complain about your cable service; or your service was turned off even though your bill said you owned nothing. Where large refrigerator size boxes were placed in your front yard and you had no say over them, or your street was torn up by a private company and local taxpayers had to pay to clean up the mess.
We are about to enter a world in which, under the guise of ‘competition’, a few very large cable and video companies write the rules and consumers and local government are the poorer because of it. Most of us in Western Wisconsin will never see the promised competition and yet, as soon as the new video bill goes into effect, the old rules that protected consumers will be gone for everyone in the state.
Last Thursday night, after a four hour debate, the state Senate passed the video franchising bill under heavy lobbying by AT&T. This bill must now return to the Assembly for agreement and then be signed by the Governor. Both actions are expected to happen by year’s end.
A man from Eau Claire called this week. He was suspicious by a post card that came in the mail. “AT&T wants me to ask my senator for competition in cable. Don’t they really want something else?” He was looking for direction.
Here is what’s behind the stories being spun.
When you write the rules, you win the game. This week in the Senate, the fight will be over the rules governing the delivery of cable TV, internet, and telephone services for the foreseeable future. What kind of companies will get to compete? What rights will consumers have? Will local government have a say? At stake are billions of dollars.
In the struggle to pass our state budget, much was left on the floor of the conference committee, trimmed by the sharp knife of compromise. A split legislature – a Republican-controlled Assembly and a Democratic Senate – brought two very different visions of state government to the table. The end result required compromise.
This budget debate will be remembered as one of the longest and most contentious. It also will be remembered as the first serious debate about health care reform.
We cannot sustain rising costs in health insurance. Farmers, families, school boards, local government and especially small businesses are paying too much. Healthy Wisconsin was a reform plan that gave us the strongest dose of cost-control medicine ever considered in Wisconsin. The plan lies, cut out of the budget, on the floor of the conference committee – a casualty of compromise. The Assembly never offered a serious alternative to control health insurance costs.
“You know, I may be only one of three reporters in the state that feels this way, but I have really learned a lot during this budget process.” The reporter shared his thoughts a few hours before the conference committee announced a budget compromise.
What he said helped me see how far I’ve come in learning to make changes in the state budget. Usually the money the state spends is carved up by a legislative budget committee working with the executive branch. But this year the process was much more public. The debate showed a very clear difference between the Senate Democrats and the Republican Assembly.
In the end, the budget is a compromise and the final deal was made in a way that adversaries could walk away from the table and claim victory. When the final spin dies down, many problems will remain. Partly because we have not resolved the difference between people’s beliefs on what government does.