Going Nowhere by Design

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

January 25, 2008

The new year was not yet two weeks old when state Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch told reporters he didn’t think there was enough time left in 2008 for the Assembly to act on health care reform or a statewide ban on smoking in public places. He also is not sure there’s time to bother with campaign finance reform.

This from the leader of a house that was in session for a grand total of 20 days in 2007 and is slated to meet only sporadically between now and the end of May, after which state lawmakers are scheduled to take the rest of the year off.

You’d think after finishing the state budget four months late and doing nothing else worthy of mention after that, lawmakers would feel obliged to pick up the pace in 2008 to justify the $47,413 annual salary they collect and the $88 a day they get for living expenses on top of their salaries (legislators who live in Dane County get half that – $44 a day).

The Assembly Speaker is saying think again.

To the average taxpaying citizen, it’s exasperating that our elected state officials are paid so much to meet so rarely and do so little when there are so many big problems we need fixed. But for the politicians, there’s a method to this madness. It pays for them to be inactive.

The public wants something done about our broken health care system. But the insurance industry and the hospitals and the HMOs want to keep things just the way they are because they are profiting handsomely from a system that is serving so many so poorly. And these interests have given state politicians seven times more in campaign contributions than supporters of health care reform have donated.

Polls consistently show about two-thirds of Wisconsin residents support a statewide smoking ban in public places. But Speaker Huebsch says the proposed clean indoor air bill faces an “uphill battle” in his house and in the Senate.

No wonder. Tavern owners and their Tavern League, which wants bars exempted from any smoking ban, contributed more than $294,000 to current legislators in the last two elections. Nearly half of that went to Huebsch’s 52-member Republican majority in the Assembly.

Among legislative Democrats, the second leading recipient of tavern industry donations is new Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, who ultimately controls whether the clean indoor air bill will be voted on in the upper house.

On matters of public health, political paralysis pays. For the politicians, that is.

What the Assembly and Senate do plan to work on in 2008 is mostly stuff that both houses know is going nowhere.

Huebsch says the GOP-controlled Assembly will pass new business tax credits, capital gains tax breaks, aid to startup technology businesses and tax-deductible “health savings accounts.” The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, doesn’t think much of any of the Assembly’s pet ideas.

The Senate Democrats plan on pushing a revision of their universal health care plan that was ditched during budget talks because the Republican Assembly and Governor Doyle didn’t like it. They don’t seem to like the idea any better now.

But gridlock has it rewards for both Democrats and Republicans. Assembly Republicans got nearly three-quarters of their campaign money in the last two elections from powerful special interests that like business tax breaks and want health care reform stopped dead in its tracks. Senate Democrats are getting a big chunk of their money from organized labor and other groups that want a major overhaul of the health care system.

The problems facing our state keep getting ignored and keep getting bigger, but the campaign money keeps flowing. The politicians are going nowhere by design.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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