While he has served in the Wisconsin Legislature for longer than many of his colleagues have been alive, state Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) is nonetheless enthusiastic about the upcoming session, when Democrats will again control the Senate.
'I'm excited that we're going to develop some good legislation, and we're not going to be spending a lot of time on bad legislation,' says Risser, who will once again serve as Senate president. 'We're going to be spending less time on guns and gays and more time on matters that are of public importance.'
In November, Democrats took control of the Senate and cut the Republican majority in the Assembly from 20 seats to five. Together with the decisive reelection of Gov. Jim Doyle, the Dems are poised to have much greater sway over the state's legislative agenda. And the Republicans may just have to throw in the towel on divisive proposals to allow concealed weapons and bring back the death penalty.
But no one expects the Dems will have smooth sailing. Already, Republicans in both chambers are decrying what they peg as Democratic efforts to increase taxes, and Gov. Doyle is not likely to go along with risky or expensive schemes, especially given the state's $1.6 billion deficit.
If Democrats want to succeed, they'll have to create legislation that is palatable to Assembly Republicans and a centrist governor.
'We're going to have to sit down and do lots of compromises,' says state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison). 'Being able to work together is going to be one of the most important skill sets.'
Here are some key items on the Dems' agenda:
Health care. The Dems want to limit the cost of care and improve quality and accessibility. 'We pay a lot,' says Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson (D-Beloit), a former nurse, 'and no one [asks whether] we are getting a good value for our dollar.'
Several plans are on the table. State Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) has proposed a plan similar to universal health care. 'We want to cover every single resident,' he says.
But Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), the newly appointed chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, is not sure that's feasible: 'Ideally, what we do is cover as many people as we can, we try to make it as affordable as we can, but I don't think universal coverage or any sort of single-payer system is going to see the light of day through the Legislature.'
Other options include GOP-supported health savings accounts, an AFL-CIO plan where employees and employers would share health-care costs, and Gov. Doyle's proposed expansion of BadgerCare to cover all children.
Property taxes. Democrats want to lighten the tax burden on Wisconsin homeowners, with a proposal to exempt the first $60,000 of a home's value from school property taxes. The difference would be made up by eliminating tax exemptions, especially the so-called Vegas Loophole that allows corporations to avoid Wisconsin property taxes by setting up mailboxes in tax-free Nevada.
Others want to repeal exemptions for particular industries, like dog-grooming. 'Whenever there's a tax exemption, it seems like the homeowners are the low people on the totem pole,' says Robson.
Sen. Erpenbach wants to remove what he calls 'sales tax loopholes.' He has proposed removing exemptions for professional services, such as hiring a lawyer or an architect. 'There is actually more exempt from the sales tax than items we tax,' he says.
But Doyle has already voiced opposition to repealing these tax exemptions, and Republicans question whether the plan to exempt the first $60,000 of home value is constitutional.
'What they call closing loopholes is raising someone's taxes,' says Mike Prentiss, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). And that, he says, would drive away businesses and jobs.
Ethics reform. In December, Gov. Doyle and legislative leaders put forth a proposal to merge the state Ethics and Elections Boards into a single agency, with independent authority to investigate and enforce.
This proposal is merely one facet of Senate Democrats' pledge to create a more transparent state government. They are also pushing campaign finance reform and Wisconsin Eye, a state-based version of C-SPAN. And Sen. Robson has barred the practice of casting secret ballots for committee votes.
Education. Democrats want to increase funding for the UW System in order to prevent faculty from moving to other institutions. A funding increase would also allow the university to provide better financial aid to potential students to offset rising tuition. And the party is calling for changes in the funding formula for K-12 education, but Rep. Pocan says leadership in this area will have to come from the governor.
Energy. The goal is to encourage development of biofuels and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. 'Wisconsin has absolutely no sources of energy,' says Miller, the new chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. 'No oil, no natural gas, no coal, no uranium. We're completely dependent on outside fuel sources. So to the extent that we can capture renewable energy in the state of Wisconsin, it will be to our economic benefit.'
Members of both parties caution that partisanship will continue to present obstacles to progress. But since neither party controls both houses, each may be more likely to put forth their most pragmatic and moderate proposals, those that have a legitimate chance of passage.
'I think what you'll see is less legislation,' says Pocan. 'But what you see will hopefully be better.'
'I've been around,' deadpans the 50-year veteran of the Wisconsin Legislature. 'I've seen the pendulum swing back and forth, and some of the most productive times in the Legislature is having each house putting forth their best ideas and then having them fleshed out.'