GOP Bill Targets Democratic County Exec
Would prevent Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris from holding state Senate seat
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is making a late-session push to bar any county executive from serving in the Legislature until their term as a county official ends. Most of the state’s 72 counties have no elected executive, but may have an appointed administrator. Of the 11 counties that have county executives, five of them are former legislators.
Seeking cosponsors, Fitzgerald said his bill will “ensure that our state taxpayers will not have to foot the bill for any elected official drawing on multiple public salaries. This proposal is a long overdue taxpayer-protection, as Wisconsin currently has some of the most lenient double-dipping regulations in the country.”
Seven of the 11 county executives are paid more than $100,000 a year, according to a Fitzgerald aide.
But Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat running for the 18th District seat open because of the retirement of Republican Sen. Rick Gudex, said Fitzgerald’s bill targets one person – him.
“I think it is up to the voters to decide if a county executive can be elected to the State Senate – not Sen. Fitzgerald,” Harris said. This tells me Republicans must be very nervous about my candidacy. If they cannot win at the polls they will try to legislate their way to holding the 18th [District]. It won’t work.”
Under current law, Harris could be elected to the Senate in November, take office and draw both salaries—$102,000 a year as county executive and $50,000 as a legislator—between January and April, when his term as county executive ends. Under Fitzgerald’s bill, Harris could not serve in the Senate between January and April unless he resigned as county executive.
If Harris is elected and accepted both salaries until his term as county executive ends, he would be paid a total of $84,000 – his $50,000 salary as a legislator and about $34,000 as county executive – next year. That would be a pay cut from his current salary.
Harris noted that other legislators have held two offices and cashed two paychecks. Manitowoc County Executive Robert Ziegelbauer, who served 20 years in the Assembly – 18 as a Democrat and the final two as an independent – said he served as county executive and Assembly member for six and a half years. Over that period, Ziegelbauer accepted annual pay “in the $70,000 range” as county executive and his legislative salary of less than $50,000 a year.
Because serving in the Assembly is a “part-time” job, Ziegelbauer said, “I didn’t double-dip. I resent the ‘double dip’ argument entirely…Technology allowed me to be 24/7. I stood before the voters and explained how I did those jobs,” Ziegelbauer said. Voters agreed by re-electing him, he added.
But senators have a “different kind of job” than Assembly members, Ziegelbauer said. Each senator represents three Assembly districts, and has “three times the meetings to go to.”
Ziegelbauer also noted another difference: Manitowoc County has about 81,000 residents; Winnebago County, about 168,000, so Harris’s decisions affect more residents and more public employees.
Kaufert’s annual salary as mayor is about $79,400; he was paid less than $50,000 a year as a legislator. Still, Kaufert said he donated between $6,000 and $7,000 to Neenah-area charities while holding both offices in 2012 because, “I wouldn’t be doing it full time.”
Asked about Fitzgerald’s bill, Kaufert said, “I have always been a guy who believes in the elective process.” If candidates get elected after telling voters how they will do both jobs, Kaufert said, “I don’t see any problem.”
Kaufert noted that many legislators also hold local office – as members of city councils, town or village boards, and county boards of supervisors – and collect “small” salaries for that work.
Besides Ziegelbauer, four other ex-legislators are county executives: Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser were Democratic Assembly members. Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow is a former GOP state senator.
Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, questioned the need for Fitzgerald’s bill. “Is this some burning public policy that we now have to address?” O’Connell said. “It doesn’t seem that that is the case.”