"I have never been politically motivated before, other than to vote,' wrote the man from Hixton. "I have never contacted a politician before because I never felt so threatened by a piece of legislation.'
The man asked that I do what I can to stop a "budget repair' bill that ignited a firestorm of protest across Wisconsin and the nation.
The man continued, "If this bill passes I fear Wisconsin and the nation will be further divided between the rich and the poor. This is about so much more than the budget and public employee unions; you are truly standing up for what is truly the right and moral thing to do.'
“Get back to work,” the man told me. He listened to the radio all afternoon and was convinced I needed to be in Madison to do my job. At the same time, my constituents pleaded with me to fight for workers rights.
Leaving Madison was the only way my colleagues and I could stop a bill that would fundamentally change Wisconsin. We needed time for the people’s voice to be heard.
On February 11th the Governor introduced a bill to make sweeping changes in the state’s Medicaid system; chip away at the civil service system and do away with public workers rights.
“Can’t they just sit down and work it out?” the woman from Buffalo City asked me. She heard about the Governor’s plan to balance the budget by eliminating bargaining for public employees. The employees wanted to meet with the Governor who refused saying he had nothing to discuss.
Two years ago we faced a $6.6 billion budget hole. We filled the deficit with a balanced approach to spending and taxes that protected vital services and infrastructure. And now the state faces a deficit of only half that amount.
Last Friday, Governor Walker announced his “budget repair” plan which sparked mass rallies across the state and left citizens wondering what happened to Wisconsin’s tradition of peacefully resolving disputes.
“We had prom night in Congress and everyone got along,” the woman told me. “Do you suppose we could get the Governors to do the same and work together?”
The woman worked in Minnesota and lived in Wisconsin. She was doing her taxes and asked me to encourage the two states to renew their “tax reciprocity” agreement.
For forty years Wisconsin and Minnesota had an income tax agreement to help make it easier for people who live in one state but work in another to file their state taxes. Residents filed in their own state and the two states worked out the difference. Wisconsin still has such an agreement with Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan.
“You’ve got to vote for that photo ID bill because of all the voter fraud,” the caller said. “All kinds of people are voting that aren’t supposed to.”
Last week a Senate Committee debated the merits of a bill to require every voter to show a current photo ID before voting. And not just any ID. Only a current driver’s license, military ID or state-issued photo ID would count. Tribal IDs, passports, veteran’s benefit IDs or student IDs would not.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports 27 states require some form of voter ID. But most states allow a variety of forms - including hunting and fishing licenses, student IDs and Medicare or social security cards. Only two states, Georgia, and Indiana, require a photo ID. No state requires the ID be as narrowly defined as the bill being debated in Wisconsin.
How do we know taxpayer dollars really create jobs? How do we decide where to send limited state dollars to grow jobs? How can we recoup tax dollars when a company doesn’t do what it promises? Or takes the money and runs to Mexico? A few years ago my colleagues and I grappled with these questions.
We came together in a bipartisan work group following the release of an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau that pointed to the need to tighten up rules for grants and loans to companies. Given to businesses in the name of “jobs”, these grants and loans often had the look of gifts made to friends.
State record keeping was so lax, the audit showed, the state did not know if those awarded planning grants actually launched their businesses; whether the businesses created expected jobs; or whether the new business development zone actually helped create new businesses.
On a hot August day I was approached by John, from Pierce County, who gave me a handwritten note. In it he shared the story of how BadgerCare saved his wife’s life. A dairy farmer, John could not afford health insurance with dairy prices well below costs. He was grateful for the program that brought his wife and new baby home safe.
BadgerCare, a part of the Medicaid Program, is a Wisconsin success story. BadgerCare has grown quickly and currently covers over 775,000 people. More than one in five Wisconsin citizens access health care through Medicaid but it comes at a cost. From nursing home care, services for the disabled and BadgerCare, state taxpayers spent $6.7 billion last year for Medicaid.
Nationwide Medicaid grew almost 9% last year, the largest increase in the past eight years. Wisconsin expenses grew by almost a billion dollars or 20% in 2009.
The story goes something like this: a middle-aged woman lost her job because she could no longer perform the physical labor. Her unemployment benefits ran out and, try as she might, she could not find another job. She was late with her house payment and the bank foreclosed on her property.
Never before have I received as many phone calls related to foreclosures as this past week. The stories follow the same line: health problems, job loss and foreclosure.
In my efforts to help constituents I spoke with a woman at Western Dairyland Community Action Agency who knew a lot about foreclosures. Two years ago the agency started a foreclosure intervention project and last month received federal money to keep the program going.
“Will Senators please take your seats?” With a wrap of the gavel, Senator Fred Risser called the 100th Session of the Wisconsin State Senate to order.
Senator Risser is the longest serving State Legislator in the country. He comes from a long line of public servants. His mother once remarked she was the daughter, the granddaughter, the wife and the mother of a State Legislator. Although the clan represented roughly the same geographic area, none of them served in the same political party.
As President of the Senate, Risser presided over the swearing in of the new Republican officers of the Senate. He then handed the gavel over to the new Senate President Mike Ellis before returning to his seat. That action ushered in a shift of political party control as Republicans took over as the Majority in both houses of the State Legislature; something Senator Risser has seen happen nine times since he was first elected in 1956.