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In the Wisconsin Legislature, the promise of a productive session

Former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, who held the Wisconsin Legislature’s top spot from 1985 to 1991, reflected on the body’s Jekyll and Hyde characteristics in his book, “The Art of Legislative Politics.”

“A legislature can be an institution where individuals act collectively for the common good. A legislature can also be a cesspool of individualism,” Loftus wrote.

The Wisconsin Legislature over the past 10 years has worn both faces. There have been shining moments when lawmakers worked across partisan lines, and with the executive branch, to change the course of state government. There have also been times when individuals put their own concerns – and self interests – ahead of the public good. While the Legislature rarely gets public credit for its accomplishments, its failures in ethics and lost opportunities are long remembered by citizens and taxpayers.

The 2005-2007 Legislature, which convenes this week, has a chance to be remembered for doing public good. It is emerging from an era when election-based scandal rocked its reputation for clean politics. Its leaders aren’t allergic to working together, and the challenges confronting Wisconsin are large enough to put all 132 members to the test.

The only unknown is whether the legislative and executive branches of state government can come together around those major issues, even if they disagree vehemently on others.
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Assembly Speaker John Gard, R-Peshtigo, and Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, have lived through the best and worst of times in the Legislature, and neither is a stranger to working with Democrats. Gard and Assembly Minority Leader Jim Kreuser, D-Kenosha, may spar on the debating floor or through the press, but they also know when to get down to business and reach compromise. Senate Minority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit, is considered a liberal on most issues, but she’s also a realist who doesn’t want her party to be marginalized.

Most leaders in both houses, and in both parties, are veterans who have earned a chance to lead. Even the relative newcomers were elected on a promise to restore faith in the process. There will be disagreements, some long and loud, but there is no reason for there to be gridlock.

There is one caveat for that optimism: Can the Legislature and Gov. Jim Doyle find common ground?

They have a huge shared problem. The state budget deficit for mid-2007 is projected at $1.6 billion, a number that reflects a revenue hangover from the recession, past spending decisions and demographic trends that effect major programs such as Medicaid. They do not yet have a shared vision for a solution. Many Republicans believe the long-term answer is a constitutional amendment that would limit all government spending, or new state limits on local property taxes. Doyle has repeatedly dismissed those ideas as unworkable, but he has yet to tip his hand about alternatives in his budget bill.

One danger is that lawmakers will become discouraged early in the budget debate and fall back on individualism, meaning government-by-press-release and introduction of relatively meaningless bills that distract them from the twin problems of the deficit and economic development. A second is that Doyle won’t give lawmakers room to revise their ideas to meet his standards.

Despite making enormous progress on issues ranging from regulatory relief to energy reliability to economic development, the 2003-2005 Legislature was viewed by some members of the public as obsessed with “the three Gs” – God, gays and guns. There is less time in this session for issues that tend to distract rather than unite.

“Strong and ambitious individuals who can tout personal accomplishments are prized by Americans and are damn good candidates for office,” Loftus wrote. “Once in office, however, they must become part of a collective process of compromise.”

In the Wisconsin Legislature, that process must not only include Democrats and Republicans, but Assembly members and Senate members, lawmakers from rural districts and representatives from big cities, and a belief that the branches of government must share power.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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