Capitol Clout Shifts to Republican Lawmakers
Given a governor distracted by his run for president, legislators are taking control of budget process.
In 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s push of Act 10 dominated the Legislature, and Republican legislators scrambled to hold their troops in line and pass it. In 2013-14, Walker and Republican legislative leaders were equal partners in approving pre-election tax cuts that caused the current budget shortfall.
This session, Republican legislators will call many of the shots. They will make some of the toughest major policy decisions, potentially offering “take it or veto it” options to a governor busy running for President.
Two weeks after Walker gave legislators his proposed 2015-17 budget, GOP lawmakers know they must develop options to two of the governor’s major initiatives: Cutting the UW System’s state aid by $150 million a year, in exchange for giving the policy-setting Board of Regents authority to run the system after July 1, 2016. And, paying for the state’s transportation future in ways that don’t include Walker’s plan to borrow an additional $1.3 billion.
“We’ve got to fix transportation,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said last week.
The list of other major decisions that Republican legislators will be making – many of them in the next few months – is stunning:
*Spending higher revenues: If May’s estimate of tax collections through mid-2017 predicts extra cash, Republican legislators will decide whether to use it to lessen the cut on the UW System, raise state aid for K-12 schools, or hike Medicaid reimbursements that the Wisconsin Hospital Association says are the second-lowest in the nation. Lowering Walker’s proposed cut in aid to the UW System should be the first draw on any windfall in tax collections, Vos added.
*Right-to-work law: If former Rep. Duey Stroebel wins Tuesday’s three-way GOP primary in the 20th Senate District, he will start the Senate push for a right-to-work law when he joins that house in April. Passage in the Senate will force a vote in the Assembly, where Vos has said it will pass.
*”Prevailing wage” laws: Laws setting wages for workers on public projects drive up construction and remodeling costs, cheating taxpayers, many Republicans say. Although Democrats say those laws give workers family-supporting jobs, GOP lawmakers want them repealed
*Restructuring GAB: Republican leaders have vowed to scrap the current Government Accountability Board, which was created to administer campaign-finance and ethics laws. At the very least, they want the board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, retired.
*Campaign-finance laws: Recent court rulings shredded Wisconsin laws limiting how much individuals can donate to campaigns and banning corporate donations. New laws are needed for the 2016 campaigns, unless Republicans think their candidates would be better off without them.
*John Doe probes: Republicans are circulating drafts of bills reworking current laws that allow district attorneys to conduct secret investigations with no limit on how long they last. Some of those drafts repeal the authority for John Doe probes entirely; others establish time and cost limits and require more judicial oversight.
*Common Core standards: Before his re-election, Walker called on legislators to reverse Wisconsin’s 2010 adoption of national Common Core standards. He then pulled back, saying every school district should have authority to make that call. But aides say his budget returns to his kill-Common Core position. GOP lawmakers will make the final call.
*70 mph speed limit: Republican legislators want the 65 mph speed limit on Interstate and major highways raised to 70. The bill has more support in the Assembly, however.
*Handgun waiting period: Now, handgun buyers who clear a background check must wait 48 hours before picking up the weapon. There is no similar waiting period for long guns. Sen. Van Wanggaard, a former police officer, wants the 48-year wait repealed, calling it a “time tax.”
*Renewable energy: Wisconsin has hit the mandated goal of generating 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. Although it’s time to set a new standard and deadline, that’s not in Walker’s budget.
Republicans control the Assembly 63-36, and will have 19-14 control of the Senate in April. With the November election of more conservative GOP senators, Republican legislators are poised to play the most offense in five years.