The story line is neither new nor unique to Wisconsin: Republicans in power promise to focus on jobs and the economy. GOP lawmakers introduce bills on divisive social issues once the Legislature convenes.
As little as six weeks ago both Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), told Scott Bauer of the Associated Press they intended to focus on economic matters - not social issues - during the Legislature's fall session.
"I'm not going to go out of my way to kick the cat and generate a lot of animosity," said Scott Fitzgerald, according to a Sept. 11 article.
Jeff Fitzgerald was more pointed. "I don't think you're going to see anything too contentious brought to the floor," he said in the same article. "We're not going to lead with a bunch of social issues or anything."
Yet since Gov. Scott Walker's Special Session on jobs kicked off in late September, GOP lawmakers have been working quickly to circulate and advance bills that focus on the kind of social issues that find very little common ground, namely abortion and sex education.
The Senate last week passed a bill that would prohibit insurance plans offered through a state health care exchange from covering abortion except in narrowly defined cases. The federal health care reform law requires states to create such exchanges, where individuals and businesses can shop for health insurance coverage, by 2014.
And just five days after its introduction, a bill that would require school districts that teach sex education to favor abstinence programs over a comprehensive approach got a public hearing before the Senate Education Committee.
There's more: Rep. Andre Jacque (R-Green Bay) is seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would establish a "right to life" in the state Constitution, thereby effectively banning abortion, fertility treatments and some methods of birth control. And a resolution to honor "crisis pregnancy centers" that counsel women against abortion was put on the Assembly calendar for Tuesday.
Spokesmen for Sen. Fitzgerald and Rep. Fitzgerald did not return phone calls seeking comment on how the lawmakers' earlier statements promising a focus on jobs departed from reality. John Jagler, spokesman for Jeff Fitzgerald, did acknowledge in an initial conversation that there are "certainly some pieces [of social issue legislation] out there. I can't say they can't come to the floor." But, he added, "On our side we haven't had that many."
Georgia Duerst-Lahti, chair of the political science department at Beloit College, says politicians rarely suffer repercussions from doing an about-face because few people are watching.
"Most citizens don't pay attention to government at all," she says flatly.
The number of reporters covering state government has shrunk substantially over recent decades, and most local papers and television stations now cover primarily local news, she adds.
"So what happens in state government is largely invisible except to the really attentive public," she says.
The "attentive public," in political science speak, is composed of the 15% to 20% of adults of voting age who do pay attention to current events and politics. Public interest groups are part of this slice of the public.
This is the so-called base politicians pander to in order to get the money and volunteers needed to run a successful campaign, Duerst-Lahti says.
"By leading with all the social issues they are feeding the base, and by feeding the base they're feeding their big donors."
What's left to give?
United Way of Dane County and other groups are in the middle of their annual workplace fundraising drives, and one big question looms: How will the cuts to public-sector workers affect donations this year?
Historically, about 10% of the local United Way's donations have come from employees who work for the city, county, state and university. In 2010, that amounted to $1.62 million from public-sector workers.
United Way's overall fundraising goal this year is $16.6 million.
United Way officials say they are sensitive to the reduced household income of public workers and are trying to strike the "right balance" when seeking help for area nonprofits.
Steve Mahoney, a purchasing agent with the Department of Corrections, says he knows some state workers who immediately discontinued their paycheck deductions this summer when their paychecks started to reflect the increased premiums for retirement and health care benefits called for in Gov. Scott Walker's budget. Mahoney and his girlfriend, also a state worker, have lost nearly $700 a month in their take-home pay due to these increases (see "Wisconsin State Employees Brace for Lower Paychecks," 8/18/11).
Mahoney says it's too early to know what giving will be like this year. But there might be some symbolic redirection of funds. Mahoney says his own union, the Wisconsin Professional Employees Council, is encouraging its members to donate to United Way outside of the workplace campaign to protest the new state prohibition on paycheck deductions of union dues.
Salli Martyniak, president of Forward Community Investments, which provides loans and other assistance to nonprofits, says cuts of $300 to $600 a paycheck will certainly have an impact on the discretionary income of affected households. And charitable giving, she adds, is discretionary spending.
"Is it going to hurt? The answer is yes."
Martyniak's group is in the process of compiling its third annual report on Wisconsin's nonprofit groups. In recent years, she says, individual giving from middle-class donors has either gone up or stayed flat. "Where you saw the decline in giving was really the upper-income households."
But Martyniak predicts there will now also be a drop in donations from middle-income folks. "It's the middle class who are being truly hurt now."
And that decrease in giving, she says, will likely translate into scaled-back services at nonprofits.
Martyniak says there is a real "mind shift" going on among those who work in nonprofits.
"In the past couple of years, organizations - whether or not they considered themselves financially healthy or a bit unhealthy - were still trying to squeeze out every possible penny so they could increase the services offered to people. Now they're starting to say we can no longer keep up."
Martyniak saves her biggest concern not for this coming year, but the next. "You can only pull so hard before the rubber band breaks," she says. "At what point do the pieces start unraveling a bit?"
A place to call home
When Isthmus first wrote about Kevin Corcoran ("Kevin Corcoran's Plight Reveals Holes in Dane County's Safety Net," 9/29/2011), the disabled liver donor recipient had just agreed to vacate the Madison apartment he and his partner, Myrna Ulrich, shared because they were $10,000 behind on rent. Corcoran, who also has chronic pain from hepatitis B he contracted from a blood transfusion in the 1970s, fell behind on rent because he spent much of his $1,600 monthly income on medical visits and prescriptions.
According to their agreement with landlord Philip Kessel, Corcoran and Ulrich were to be out of the apartment by Oct. 20. But finding a new apartment has not been easy due to their poor credit history.
A senior living apartment complex in Middleton has offered to rent them an accessible two-bedroom apartment, but it is requiring four months of rent upfront along with a security deposit.
That wouldn't be legal in Madison, says Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, but it is in Middleton. Of course if the state Legislature passes SB 107, Konkel adds, it would be legal in Madison, too, because the proposed bill would override many of the city's tenant protections.
"This is a really good example of the kinds of draconian policies landlords are able to put into place with these low vacancy rates," says Konkel. "And people have no choice but to make it work, or be homeless."
Since Isthmus wrote about Corcoran's plight, good Samaritans have stepped up to help. One reader called with a potential studio apartment to rent; another offered Corcoran, who is diabetic, unused syringes her husband no longer needs. Middleton Outreach Ministry has assisted him, as has a local church.
One man is offering to pay two of the four months of prepaid rent the couple need for their new digs. He has also set up a "Kevin Corcoran Fresh Start Account" at the Summit Credit Union on Junction Road and created a website for donations (sites.google.com/site/friendsofkevincorcoran).
He actually gives credit to the managment of the Middleton apartment building for trying to work out an arrangement for Corcoran. "Most of the other apartments aren't even considering him," he says.