Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Missing: A Branch of Government

One of my political mentors was Charlie Zollar, shrewd as he was affable and chair of the powerful Michigan Senate Appropriations Committee -- perhaps more accurately the powerful chair of the powerful Michigan Senate Appropriations Committee.

In his Lansing office I once asked the upwardly mobile Charlie if he thought about running for governor. 

"Why the Hell would I want to do that," he bellowed.  "When he wants something he has to come and see me."

Charlie's lesson was that there's more than one branch of government and the executive must work with and get along with the legislative.  (Of course, here in Wisconsin, the judicial branch is in its own world of discord and cow-towing to well-heeled special interests, but that's a story for another day."

In the current budget adjustment bill chaos in Madison Governor Walker has firm allies among the Republicans in the Senate and Assembly to the point where the Fitzgerald bobbleheads who run both houses say that the bill will pass without any amendments.  Wow!  They're right -- Walker's grip on them is so tight that there is no dissent, no individual thinking -- just rote compliance.

That's too bad.  The three branches of government are supposed to serve as checks and balances.  But in present-day Wisconsin we have bobbleheads.

For sale: Wisconsin. Contact Governor Scott Walker.

In Casablanca Captain Louis Renault, Rick's amiably corrupt police friend, utters a famous line, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" as he collects his winnings.

The same can be said for politics in Madison.  The teachers and parents whose perception of Wisconsin government is based on what they taught or learned in the fourth and ninth grades certainly have had their ideals crushed by seeing politics as usual in the raw -- except carried to unprecedented new lows.

It is said that the mark of a good politician is the ability to conceal envy when accusing the opponent of screwing the public.  Our brand new governor doesn't even bother to conceal it.  His ego and delusional behavior have shown that he is immune to criticism.  He doesn't care.

Wisconsin has weathered some rather controversial coziness in recent years.  Tommy Thompson had lots of business friends but he sought to be a people's governor.  Jim Doyle's ties to Indian gaming interests left heads shaking.  But that's chump change compared to Scott Walker.

Walker is like the emperor caught with his pants down.  His telephone conversation with a blogger posing as one of his campaign contributors shows that Walker's agenda isn't fixing the state budget but becoming a self-aggrandizing union buster.  Further, Walker unabashedly discusses his strategy for crushing Democrats in the legislature, pretending that he would discuss the budget with the opposition but only as a trick to get boycotting Senate Democrats back into the State Capitol so majority Republicans can ram through his so-called "budget repair bill."

Much of what Walker says in the 20 minute conversation was embellishing his image, ego and message.  No major smoking gun, to be sure.  But the indifference to the process is shocking even for those who have seen Madison politics at its worst in the past.  Walker seems oblivious to the concerns of others.  There is only one way -- his way and don't delay.

Past abuses and an unwillingness to cut budget pork and pass the hat to pay for core services means Wisconsin legislators must make hard choices.  There is a process for doing that and it involves give and take.  That's too deep for college dropout Walker who seeks to dump Wisconsin's progressive traditions for temporary expediency and sucking up to his financial backers.

The real message from Scott Walker isn't that these are tough times and we need to work together to solve tough problems.  It's that he and Wisconsin are for sale to the highest bidders.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kenosha County Board: Right call, wrong way

By a 19-9 vote tonight the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution opposing Governor Scott Walker's so-called "budget repair bill." 

Though largely symbloic -- our new governor seems to only hear those who agree with him 100% -- the board's resolution carries the right message.  Supporters, many of whom were either union members or from union families (or both), make it clear that collective bargaining is an essential part of our state's fabric and should not be tossed out the window in order to address the state's fiscal issues and, in fact, should be used as a tool to accomplish that objective.

The fly in the ointment tonight was that this resolution wasn't the only one on the agenda. 

Supervisor Joe Clark, a Pleasant Prairie Republican, offered up two resolutions supporting Walker but the board sent his to a committee -- essentially neutering them -- while voting to suspend its rules to take up the one opposing the budget bill.

Board chair Mark Molinaro told supervisors that even though the resolutions could be voted on separately they could be debated together but nonetheless they voted to consider only one tonight.  That's wrong. 

Sure, Clark's resolutions probably would have gone down to well-deserved defeats, but it's only fair that if the rules are going to be suspended for one, they should have been for all.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why it's difficult to solve a state budget crisis

A few years ago I was with my friend, Brian, and his dad, an Alberta legislator and right-hand man to "King Ralph" Klein, Alberta's long-time Conservative premier, an earthy ex-broadcaster who had the good fortune to be running an oil-rich province.

We were watching a hockey game with Ralph who was peppering some young people with questions about government that you won't find in a civics test.  Ralph kept hammering them with the same question that they stumbled to answer -- What's the number one goal of every elected official?

Finally King Ralph bellowed the answer: To get reelected!

Concise, to the point and hardly rocket science but true indeed and that very crusty piece of reality should be in our minds as ponder our state's financial mess.  It didn't happen overnight and solving it isn't as easy as cutting spending, gutting union contracts and the unions that negotiated them or eliminating "waste" in government.  Partisanship also doesn't work as every party is equally to blame.  One day you're the bug, next day you're the windshield.

Let's go back to the early 1970's when Pat Lucey was the governor who touted a "no tax increase" state budget except that there were dozens of fee hikes and cuts in shared revenue to schools and local units of governments.  Maybe the state income tax rate didn't increase but taxpayers shelled out more for license plates, tuition and local property taxes.

Things went well to the point that when Pat quit to become Ambassador to Mexico, Marty Schreiber, his successor, was blessed with a billion dollar surplus which, he argued, should be socked away for a rainy day.

But my dear friend and mentor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, rode the mantra of giving the surplus back to taxpayers as he swept into the Governor's office in 1978 and legislative Democrats, not to be outdone, blasted Dreyfus' plan to distribute the largess as favoring the affluent.  Lee countered by telling the Democrats to feel free to come up with their own plan, which they did and it gave back more than Dreyfus asked.  The net check to each taxpayer, as I recall, came out to something like $80 which, even in 1979, wasn't a lot.

Things changed and as Lee left office in 1983 the state's finances began to sour and the new governor, Tony Earl, sure wished he had that rainy day fund.  Instead Earl and his Democrats imposed a temporary income tax surcharge.

To their credit, it got the job done without significant pain and was even terminated ahead of schedule.  Instead of being a hero, Tony was hailed by challenger Tommy Thompson as "Tony the taxer" and that manta cost Tony reelection in 1986.

Of course Tommy and his successor, Jim Doyle, each had their special projects and even when the economy went south during Doyle's second term we saw ridiculous special interest spending at the same time employees providing core services were being furloughed and constituent services curtailed.

So, from this inside perspective, here's your reality check.

First, cutting "waste" and "fat" in government sounds great in a political ad but rarely happens in a meaningful way and, even when attempted, usually fails.  Think about it.  If you really cut out the waste and fat, then you wouldn't have any more to cut, right?  That's assuming the best-case scenario.  In reality, trimming government fat may stub special interest toes and that doesn't help reelection chances.

Second, when cuts are made, it's usually core services that are attacked, not the pet projects.

So, if you really want to cut spending, you need to empower the folks who run the show on a day-to-day basis to spend taxpayer money as if it was their own.  It seldom happens.  And special interest spending must take a back seat to funding core services.

The reality is also that even if you've cut as much as you can, it may not be enough.  Prices go up and the state is a consumer like the rest of us.  Without a rainy day fund socked away -- something we encourage people to have -- the state gets into a frenzy to address budget defecits because there was no planning for them.  When my home was flooded I had to dip into savings to make repairs.  Same for medical emergencies not covered by insurance.

Between Lee "giving back the cookie jar" and Tony getting his head chopped off for actually raising taxes, albeit temporarily, you're not likely to see the state do anything meaningful to truly manage its finances.  Doing so would violate King Ralph's rule #1. 

And if you don't believe me, ask Tony the Taxer.

Nobody likes paying taxes and no politician likes raising them. 

The Elephant In The Room

If they step back, many of my soon-to-be-ex-friends who are bashing Wisconsin's public employees will see that their real angst isn't at the men and women who sacraficed increased pay for those benefits but rather with the elephant in the room: uncontrolled health care costs.

I'm hearing from people who say it cost them $1800 a month for their health insurance (which can be deducted from their taxes if they are self-employed or part of a corporation, by the way, unlike employees who have to meet unreasonably high threshholds before a deduction becomes available).  Ironically the state pays that much and more for family coverage for its employees, particularly in southeast Wisconsin where we have some of the most expensive health care costs in the nation.

This is the elephant in the room they're missing.  The real beef isn't with the workers but with the outrageous cost for health care that simply isn't being held in check.  Say what you want about "Obamacare" but its biggest flaw is that it dodged cost containment.  Without costs in check the bill is a disaster, even if you like the concept.

I lived in Canada so I'd like to tell you about the Canadian system which, although not perfect, is a starting point.  Canadians see their doctors, just as we do.  Instead of having a gazillion different insurance companies with a gazillion different sets of costly rules and procedures, there is a single payer: your province.  There are no hospitals across the street from each other using your health care dollars to run ads on TV and in the newspapers.  Drugs aren't covered but drug costs are a fraction of what they are here.  The only real problem is that you don't get instant elective surgery.  The system isn't perfect but it works and Canadians zealously defend it.

One tremendous aspect of the Canadian system that we don't understand is that it spreads the cost of health care.  This is important because it allows small businesses to compete for employees as the cost of health care is borne by all taxpayers.  There are no $1800 monthly premiums.

So, if this system works, why isn't it available here?  Good question. 

Let's see.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is part of Journal Commuinications, a conglomerate that also owns other newspapers and broadcast outlets.  Even the Kenosha News does.  Do you think editorial writers are going to bite the very hands of the advertisers?  And the health care industry contibutes mightily to politicians so good luck getting anything done there.

So, here's my take.  Take away my insurance benefits and give me the Canadian health care system.  I'll gladly pay for my supplemental policy to cover dental, vision and drugs (as many Canadians do or their unions negotiate). 

My friends, your beef isn't with fellow workers.  It's with a corrupt health care system that's run amok and the corrupt politicians and institutions afraid to do anything about it.

Steve Lund: A ‘yes man’ in every key job

by Steve Lund - Kenosha News

If everyone wasn’t already up in arms about Gov. Scott Walker’s legislative proposals, they might be talking about how many of his actions are too sleazy for Wisconsin’s good-government tradition.

Sleazy move No.1:

He appointed Steve Fitzgerald, 68, father of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, to a nice job as head of the State Patrol. Technically, the appointment was made by Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, but Gottlieb is also a Walker appointee.

It’s good that the appointee, a former county sheriff and former U.S. Marshal, is well qualified for the job, but there are probably quite a few people who could fill the position. This appointment to a job paying $105,700 annually adds cement to the bond between the governor and the Fitzgerald brothers who lead the state Legislature.

The governor has little or no control over whom other legislators elect to the leadership positions in the Assembly and Senate, but he did have an effect on the Republicans becoming the majority party in both the chambers. Walker helped to lead a Republican sweep in November, and he helped the Fitzgerald brothers vault from being minority leaders to majority leaders. It’s a huge difference in terms of influence.

They’ve shown their appreciation by rushing almost all of the governor’s proposals through a special session of the Legislature.

With their father’s appointment to head the State Patrol, they have even more reason to show their appreciation to the governor.

Sleazy move No. 2

: Walker proposed taking collective bargaining rights away from public employees, except police officers and firefighters.

Why, if the issue is fixing the state budget, should police and firefighters be exempt? One answer is that some, if not all, police and firefighters unions supported Walker in the campaign. A better answer is that police to some extent and firefighters to a greater extent are popular.

Walker may be correct that most private-sector workers are resentful of the pension and health benefits state workers and teachers have. That doesn’t mean the public thinks the right to bargain collectively about those things should be taken away. Walker could negotiate the changes in benefits without rewriting state labor law.

But even if the voting public resents the better health insurance and pensions that public sector workers have, they like police service and they treat firefighters like heroes. The Legislature might think twice about changing the bargaining rules for cops and firefighters.

Wednesday afternoon it began to look like the Legislature was having second thoughts anyway and would propose “substantive” amendments. That was a big change from Tuesday, when legislative leaders announced they had the votes to pass Walker’s proposal before any testimony was heard at the public hearing.

Sleazy move No. 3:

Gov. Walker wants to fill more jobs with political appointees. Former Gov. Jim Doyle fought (with his own party) to keep the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources a political appointee, but Gov. Walker also wants public information officers and the lawyers for state agencies to be political appointees. This has nothing to do with fixing the budget, but it’s part of the budget repair bill.

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters’ newsletter had this to say about the political appointees: “The citizens of Wisconsin have the right to expect that the spokespeople who provide information to the public and the state’s lawyers who administer justice are doing their jobs in the interest of the citizens of the state. Government employees should not have to be worried that they could be fired at any time for providing truthful information or representation that is displeasing to the governor.”

Add it up, and Gov. Walker would get a pretty high score on the Sleaze-o-meter. He’s building an environment where it will be very difficult for anyone to disagree with him.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kenosha News: Slow down and talk about budget repair bill

Sometime in the middle of the day Thursday, the special legislative session officially became a circus.

Demonstrators protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, which strips public employee unions of many of their collective bargaining rights, had been sleeping overnight in the state Capitol. High school students were walking out of schools in Kenosha and staging their own demonstrations. In other cities, so many teachers took personal days or called in sick so they could go to the demonstrations in Madison that schools had to close.

But what really turned the session into a circus was the the Democratic members of the state Senate refusing to show up for a floor session. It was the only way they could think of to prevent the Republican majority from passing Walker’s bill. The Senate needs 20 members present to pass a fiscal bill, and there are only 19 Republican senators.

The Democratic senators were reported to be out of the state so they could be out of the reach of the Wisconsin State Patrol, which the Senate majority leader said could be sent to bring them to the Senate chamber.

It is reminiscent of a situation in Texas several years ago, when legislators fled to Oklahoma to prevent the majority party from passing a redistricting plan.

Circus-like or not, the Democratic senators’ action may have forced the one thing that’s needed most right now: A deep breath. Everyone, including the Republican majority in the Legislature, ought to slow down.

The legislation that the governor proposed has enormous implications, not just for the short-term financial problems it purports to fix. The Senate and Assembly were scheduled to vote on the bill on Thursday, just a week after the governor announced the plan.

It is not reasonable to expect workers who are directly affected by the governor’s bill to accept the changes as legitimate when they have had so little time to absorb them and when they have not had a chance to influence the legislation.

In our view, the governor is correct that public sector workers ought to be paying more for their health insurance and pensions, but the legislation he has proposed goes far beyond that. He has proposed taking away their rights to bargain for anything other than wages, and he wants to put a cap on the wage negotiations.

We think the governor, the Legislature and the residents of Wisconsin would be well served if this process would slow down. Now we have demonstrators shouting and disrupting the legitimate work of elected officials, but they might not be shouting if they were ever given a genuine chance to be heard. On Wednesday Republican leaders announced they had the votes to pass the bill when a public hearing on it had barely begun.

If the governor believes he needs an emergency budget repair bill, he should propose one that makes emergency repairs, not something that rewrites the state’s collective bargaining laws. Had he done that in the first place, this circus might not have happened.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chris Abele: Is this numbskull for real?

Scott Walker's election as Governor leaves Milwaukee County with an interesting cast of characters seeking to replace him as county executive.  Perhaps the most interesting is relatively unknown, but well-heeled, Chris Abele.

Abele flashes onto our television screens out of the blue proclaiming that he's the candidate above partisanship, willing to embrace good ideas no matter where they come from.  Sounds great, eh?

Not so fast.

Travelers in the desert report seeing mirages.  At first they appear clear but when you approach them they become fuzzy and disappear when they are reached.  Abele is reminiscent of such a mirage.

For example, one of his campaign ads says he'll cut of "perks" -- his word -- for county officials such as cell phones.  Say what?

In case he hasn't checked, it's 2011 and most of the executive world is welded to smart phones that enable voice and data communication.  It's how business is done these days and the mantra that government should operate more like a business is basically sound. 

And it doesn't have to be just executives.  When there's a crisis in the building -- like an overflowing toilet -- and custodians are needed, what's the best way to get in touch with them? 

Instead of being a good steward of taxpayer money, someone who advocates such looniness is not only dumb, but costly.

Then there's his newest idea, resurrecting the notion that consolidating services is more efficient and cost effective.  Sometimes it is, sometimes not.  But one of Abele's ideas also comes right out of the loonie bin.

Abele says that the Milwaukee Police Department should take over investigations from the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department.  Again, at first blush those who are not familiar with law enforcement might think it's an idea worth pursuing.  In reality, though, it's another mirage.

Sheriffs are the chief law enforcement officers in the county with broad authority.  Milwaukee County is  bit unique because there are no unincorporated areas but the sheriff has specialized enforcement responsibility over county-owned property such as te courthouse, Mitchell Field, county institutions, the Milwaukee County Zoo, the jail and House of Correction, parks and so forth.  County detectives also deal with cross-jurisdictional issues and witness protecton.

Not only is the law enforcement responsibility for these properties a matter of law, it's a matter of expertise.  County officers know these facilities and their enforcement needs which are not necessarily the same as in a municipality.  Shifting these duties would be a costly boondoggle, requiring training scores of officers.  Further, the city would need to hire more personnel and the new hires might not have sufficient experience to replace the competence level lost by reassignment of experienced officers to duties performed by sheriff's detectives.

This is not to say that Abele's mantra of being creative and open-minded is entirely flawed.  It isn't.  But the more he floats dumb idea, the more his incompetence is unmasked.  That's scary.