Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wisconsin's New Republican Governor Brings Speedy Changes

In the last few days, the new Republican governor has been ramming through the state Legislature an agenda that changes the state's tax structure, provides new legal protections for businesses and reorganizes a major state agency. In rapid-fire fashion, complicated issues that normally occupy months of debate are going from bill to hearing to law.

"Everything's coming out in a breakneck pace," said Robert Kraig, a lobbyist since 1999. "I've never seen anything like it."

Walker is among the new governors who assumed power this month after the Republican midterm election sweep last fall. But his legislative blitz is unlike the scene in other state capitols, where the gears of government are just beginning to turn. In Michigan, where new Republican governor Rick Snyder has taken charge, lawmakers have just started introducing bills.

Walker's march reflects his approach to the job - brash and unconcerned about stepping on toes as he puts in place a pro-business platform he says will create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin and attract new business. He also benefits from the fact that Republicans also won control of both houses of the legislature, and Democrats are still reeling.

"I didn't want to waste any time," Walker said in a Wednesday interview. "This is not the only thing we're going to do on the economy. This is just the first big wave, in terms of symbolism of the speed of our action, combined with substance."

Democrats, relegated to the minority, say Walker's ability to race through major legislation doesn't mean it's a good idea. "The problem with moving too fast too soon is that you have unintended consequences," said state Sen. Fred Risser, a Democrat from Madison who is his 55th year in the Legislature and is the longest-serving state lawmaker in the country. "I would predict that we'll be back later this spring correcting some of the mistakes that are obviously going to be enacted."

The Senate passed a sweeping lawsuit reform bill Tuesday that makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue companies and limits damage awards. The Assembly is expected to give its approval Thursday. Also Thursday, both chambers are expected to vote to eliminate state income taxes on contributions to Health Savings Accounts, a long-stalled Republican health proposal.

Other measures teed up for next week would cut taxes on businesses that relocate to Wisconsin and provide a tax deduction for every new job created. Walker also has reached agreement on a plan for cutting small business taxes and is working on reorganizing the Commerce Department to better attract businesses.

As the bills march by, supporters, opponents and everyone else are scrambling to keep up. Lawmakers who only went into session on Jan. 3 are presiding over hearings while their offices are still full of unpacked boxes. They receive briefings on bills only hours before they vote, not days or weeks in advance. There is little time for feedback from constituents.

"The public couldn't possibly know about all of these changes," said Rep. Peter Barca, the top-ranking Democrat in the Assembly.

Interest groups and advocates barely have time for their press conferences. Kraig, a lobbyist for Citizen Action of Wisconsin, threw together three news conferences in eight days to comment on bills under consideration. Typically, he holds one every few months.

"Although I don't agree with the policy, it is impressive how much they're getting done," he said.

Compare this pace to 2007 when Wisconsin was the last state to pass its budget - nearly four months overdue. When Democrats held power, enact priorities like a statewide smoking ban took several years.

Walker defends the rapid pace, saying he was talking about his ideas during his campaign so they're well known by now.

GOP Sen. Mark Ellis, who is in his 41st year in the Legislature, says the reason for Republicans to rush to judgment is obvious: Because they can.

"Now that we have the majority, what do they expect us to do?" he said.