May 29, 2013

Milwaukee Courier

Legislatively Speaking: Garbage Dumping Day at the Capitol

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

It’s an old dirty trick in politics:  dump the garbage on a Friday afternoon.  This trick is typically used when politicians need to do something dirty or own up to a mistake It’s happens on Fridays because the press is usually gone and citizens are contemplating their weekend, not politics. The trick is more powerful during a long weekend, like Memorial Day.  The long weekend gives politicians seventy-two hours for a story to reach a few people when it should reach everybody. 

In Wisconsin, we are no stranger to this old trick.  Both parties have used it with gusto.  But the Republican legislative majority and Republican Governor use it more often and more widely than I have ever witnessed in my over ten years in the Capitol. 

Last Friday, Wisconsin received a Friday garbage dump and it still smells badly at the Capitol.  While divisive and destructive budget negotiations are happening, three bills were quietly ushered into the Legislature.  I will explain each in more detail, but a key part of the angst over each of these three bills is an abuse of the legislative process.  Rather than following the normal process of circulating each bill for cosponsors and allowing at least a few days for public comment, these  three bills were placed are on the proverbial fast track.  Two were not even circulated for cosponsors.  Instead, the public received five days of notice of a public hearing, three of which were the long holiday weekend.  The third bill is being circulating for co-sponsorship, but for an unusually abbreviated time: five days.  This rushed process destroys the little trust and support the public has left for the legislature as a body.

Two bills, AB 219 and SB 200, authored by Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) and Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere) are companion proposals that make major changes to unemployment insurance laws in Wisconsin.  The changes are difficult to comprehend not because they are complex, but because they are found in 123 pages. 

Historically in Wisconsin, the Legislature utilizes the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, a group of management and labor representatives, to tell us the best policy and/or changes to make to unemployment.  These bills do not come from this group.  Rather, we are considering bills which represent the political interests of its sponsors over the needs of the management and labor communities.

One of the most onerous provisions of these two bills that causes great concern for me, as I am sure it will for you, is a Republican sponsored invasion of our right to privacy.  Under the bill, banks will be required to report on your private bank account to government officials if you have been overpaid in unemployment.  This invasion of privacy is particularly striking given that the authors claim to believe in limited government.  Worse, Republicans continue to resist accountability measures for corporate welfare doled out by WEDC, but they are actively pursuing big-brother legislation to monitor you. What hypocrisy!

The third bill is yet another attempt to change Wisconsin’s voting laws.  This bill is alarming because it impacts a core fundamental right in this state: your right to elect who represents you in government. The bill was introduced by Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greenfield) and it makes changes to the Voter ID laws that were passed last session – laws that were judicially declared unconstitutional.  Additionally, the bill “standardizes” the times for early absentee voting at the clerk’s office. The goal here is simple: to prevent weekend voting across Wisconsin, including in Milwaukee.   I will say that again: no weekend voting in Milwaukee.

Although shorter than the attack on unemployment, there are monumental changes in this 77 page bill to your voting rights. A particularly striking rule change is tucked away in the 77 pages: if passed legislators can call lobbyists for money on April 15th of an election year, rather than having to wait until June 1st.  The double standard here is nothing short of appalling. According to Republicans, citizens need less time to vote, but legislators need more time to fundraise from lobbyists.  Republican priorities are all wrong. 

On the bright side, Rep. Stone’s fundraising bill / attack on voting rights wasn’t immediately thrown into a committee hearing, but history tells us that we can expect fast action on the proposal. 

As I write this, the Joint Finance Committee may disregard your advocacy to express your opinion at the hearings on the bill.  The committee is likely to make major changes to unemployment law in the budget, without a hearing, and without notice at all to you the citizens.  This is not how Wisconsin can and should operate. 

Changes to the unemployment and voting laws should not come like a serpent slithering through the grass to strike our citizens without warning.  The legislative process should be a conversation, with transparency and inclusion of all the voices that should be involved in the debate. 

It’s not a good day for Wisconsin citizens to smell the garbage that got dumped on them last Friday.