It came as little surprise to me when I read, in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article, that Republicans in the state Legislature were kicking into high gear to pass a series of their pet bills as quickly as possible. Enough of their colleagues, after all, now face recall elections this summer that there is the real potential for taking away the GOP's majority.
I would expect the same thing from whatever party was currently in power if it was faced by similar uncertainty. The Doyle Administration pushed through certain bills during its lame duck session. It is a tactic that is, quite frankly, commonplace.
So it's not the maneuvering that I find problematic, so much as the specific bills the Republicans have chosen to prioritize and ramrod through.
In this rough economy, when Gov. Walker's campaign cry was "jobs, jobs, jobs," what has the state GOP moved to the forefront?
Republicans, in a rapid sequence of votes over the next eight weeks, plan to legalize concealed weapons, deregulate the telephone industry, require voters to show photo identification at the polls, expand school vouchers and undo an early release for prisoners.
Unless we're counting increased income for the big phone companies and private schools I don't see a single good job coming out of any of that legislation.
It's yet another example of the deeply ingrained hypocrisy of the current Republican Party, and too many of the people in charge in general: Use society's genuine concerns over employment and security to get elected, then pull the ol' bait and switch to pass your favorite social legislation that does nothing to address anything but the interests of your own ignorance and biggest donors.
I've already written at length about why the proposed voter ID legislation is dangerous and disenfranchising. The bill gets yet more insulting when you consider the cost to the taxpayers to see it implemented: $5.7 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
What's more, amendments to the bill introduced yesterday would make implementation immediate, meaning the disenfranchisement would affect the recall elections this summer-recalls largely targeting Republicans. (The Assembly Committee on Election and Campaign Reform passed the bill 5-3 yesterday and it now goes on to a full Assembly vote.)
Concealed carry is certainly a contentious issue -- one I'm honestly on the fence about (see some of my past comments on the subject here) -- but regardless of how you feel about it, you have to admit it does nothing to address unemployment. Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi have both expressed reservations about the bill as-is, too.
Deregulating the phone industry? I'm having a little bit of déjà vu here -- a very similar piece of legislation nearly passed just last year. Then as now the industry and other bill backers made some pretty wild claims about how deregulating the business would create tens of thousands of jobs and lower customer's rates.
Then as now, that simply isn't true.
This most recent incarnation of the bill has been scheduled for a vote before the full Assembly just one week after a hearing on it, leaving almost no time for public comment or scrutiny. As written, it would prohibit the state's Public Service Commission from setting telecom rates, performing audits on the industry, or investigate consumer complaints.
It would also allow companies to discontinue service to any given territory after 2013 -- likely leaving rural customers completely in the dark. Why invest the big bucks necessary to extend or maintain landline and/or broadband service to remote locations when the payback is comparatively small?
It took government involvement to see the electrification of our more rural areas, a move that greatly benefited the country as a whole and many individuals who'd previously been cut off from the world. Ensuring that everyone has access to phones and internet is, in this day and age and in my opinion, just as essential. Deregulating the industry, then, would do just the opposite.
As for rates going down for anyone, I think examining the effects of the Video Competition Act, passed in 2007 deregulating the cable industry in the state, is instructive. Proponents of that bill argued up and down that passage would lead to increased competition and lowered rates for customers. Rates, however, actually went up (PDF) after it became law.
Barry Orton, as always, is hot the trail of this bad business:
...many rural areas of Wisconsin with spotty cellular service and no cable don't have affordable alternatives. And many older customers will not consider an unfamiliar technology; these landline users still need the PSC's legal protection.
Opposing last year's bill, Nino Amato, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Aging Groups, said: "There are still 3 million customers in Wisconsin who use wired phone services, and we simply cannot abandon them."
Orton goes on to suggest some basic safeguards that might make the legislation more palatable: Require that telecoms continue to offer a basic telephone service within their current territories. That would at least prevent rural and inner city residents from finding themselves without at least landline service. Last year Sen. Jon Erpenbach also offered an amendment that would have given jurisdiction over the increasingly ubiquitous wireless services to the PSC.
Both of those ideas go contrary to the telecom industry's desire for complete deregulation, of course, and the current bill's lightning fast journey from committee to full vote simply demonstrates its supporters' continued desire to lock out entirely any public input and scrutiny.
All of this would be more likely to hinder job creation and maintenance, rather than help it, as the industry lobbyists argue.
Without PSC oversight on repairs to lines and services could leave businesses waiting weeks before their access was restored, something guaranteed to result in lost revenue. Eliminating landlines could cost tech workers jobs, too. Limited or no access to high-speed services could leave many rural and inner city residents at a distinct disadvantage when hunting for education and jobs, since so much of that process has been moved online.
And then you've got school vouchers -- the darling of conservative legislators everywhere. Not only does expanded voucher access put an emphasis on private schools not beholden to government curriculum requirements, but it also drains crucial funds from those evil, secular public schools.
Finally there's the end of the prisoner early release program, something that allows non-violent offenders with good behavior a way to serve out the remainder of their sentences on extended community supervision, instead of in jail. Republicans backing the repeal claim that the program puts citizens at danger and saves no money -- both fairly shaky assertions.
A 2010 report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance shows that Wisconsin had more than 23,000 people in prisons in 2008, compared to fewer than 9,000 in Minnesota. The alliance said the key difference was the Badger State's push to get tough on offenders and deny parole.
The alliance estimated that the difference cost Wisconsin $375 million. Corrections, at $1.08 billion, stood as Wisconsin's third-largest general fund program. Only local schools and the UW System got more money.
So the Doyle Administration implemented the early release program which, as of April of this year, had moved just over 500 inmates into community supervision, with just 29 of them re-offending. The program is only in its infancy so it's difficult to pinpoint the exact savings, but if it were allowed to continue I'm fairly positive we'd see less overcrowding in the prison system, leading to fewer expansion projects, which would mean less money spent (or maybe allowing the funds that would have gone toward expansion to support more important things like staffing levels, educational and vocational programs, etc.).
Prisons are, after all, supposed to be about reforming people and helping them return to society as more constructive members of it -- instead, we've created a system that tends to make things worse for those who end up in it-from overcrowding, understaffing, poor medical care and education, to underfunding of transitional programs that help inmates re-acclimatize to life on the outside.
Changes to the program may well be necessary -- making sure violent offenders aren't eligible, putting the decision-making process at least partly back in the hands of judges instead of a governor-appointed official-but ending it outright seems premature and short-sighted.
The bill is dead, long live the bill
In addition to this Tea Party wet dream of a legislative to-do list, Republicans are also eyeballing inserting the extremely controversial budget "repair" bill provision stripping most public employee collective bargaining rights into the biennial budget.
If successful, the move would sidestep the legal wrangling over the violation of the open meetings law entirely and potentially do so before the recall elections in July.
Might be time to strap on the ol' protesting boots again, folks:
Welhouse said there are two ways the collective bargaining bill could be inserted into the budget.
He said the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee could pass the 2011-2013 budget and the collective bargaining bill could be added as an amendment once it hits the Assembly floor for debate, or a finance committee member could insert it into the bill through a motion before sending it out of committee.
Or, lawmakers could give the proper 24-hour notice and again vote on the bill in conference committee.
I suppose it's no surprise really that, facing enormous public backlash and a potential loss of their Senate majority this summer, Republicans are rushing this whirlwind of legislation through. It does belie deep insecurities and a distrust of the citizenry -- not to mention the rule of law, which they clearly illustrated serious contempt for during the initial round of discussion and voting on the budget "repair" bill.
Rather than being willing to have real conversations with the electorate and to hear people's real concerns, the GOP seems content to give us the proverbial finger and just do what they want, consequences be damned.
And if they can do it all before we've had the chance to hold them responsible for their ill-advised actions at the polls, so much the better.