Today, long time State Senator Roger Breske announced he was retiring from the State Legislature to take over as Wisconsin Commissioner of Railroads. Breske, who had served in the Legislature for 18 years, was a quintessential Northern Wisconsin Democrat. While he was a consistent vote for Democratic efforts to raise taxes, he was fiercely protective of his constitutents\’ rights to property and gun ownership. He has been praised on this very blog for his plain-spoken opposition to a statewide smoking ban. He was also pro-life and conservative on a variety other social issues.
Yet despite his steadfast adherance to personal conviction, Breske\’s legacy will be tainted by a single vote, taken on March 4th of 2003.
If there\’s any group that Breske calls his own, it is tavern owners. The Senator is a legend in the taverns of the 12th Senate District – it\’s the one place where everyone knows his name, and he claims to have grown up in a bar. It is this support for bar owners that forged his virulent opposition to the smoking ban.
One thing that threatens small family-owned bars in Northern Wisconsin is the competition wrought by Indian casinos. When casinos grow in the north woods, it drains money out of taverns, as people often choose to spend their money gambling.
In 2003, Governor Jim Doyle unilaterally negotiated several gaming compacts that allowed greatly expanded gambling in perpetuity. The compacts could never be revisited, unless the Indian tribes agreed to do so. In exchange, the state treasury got a slightly higher cut of the casino revenues.
Naturally, such an arrangement would be a blow to northern tavern owners. When the Legislature considered a bill to add legislative oversight to approval of gaming compacts (a concept Doyle supported as Attorney General), Breske voted for it. After Doyle vetoed the bill, it headed back to the State Senate, where it appeared the votes were there to override Doyle\’s veto.
Quickly, it became apparent that Breske might be the deciding vote on whether to override the governor\’s veto. He anguished over his decision for days, hiding from his Senate colleagues. When he left his office, he was hounded by reporters wondering whether he was going to side with his most beloved constituent group – the tavern owners – or if he was going to switch his vote and side with Doyle.
When Breske finally announced he was inserting a knife into the back of his district tavern owners and siding with the Governor, rumors abound that he had struck some kind of deal with Doyle. Breske is, after all, 70 years old, and seemed to welcome the idea of a less stressful job within the Doyle administration. After his vote on the gaming compacts, some speculated it was only a matter of time that he would take advantage of his deal with Doyle. And now that day may have arrived.
The 12th Senate District is a Republican district that Democrats were able to hold because of Breske\’s personal popularity. With Roger gone, it could be a GOP pickup in the fall. Unfortunately, despite his hard work on behalf of his constituents, it will always appear that he was willing to sell them out for political gain.
UPDATE: Here\’s a March 4, 2003 account of Breske\’s travails, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (sorry, no link:)
Senate Republicans were counting on Sen. Roger Breske (D-Eland), in particular, to join them in voting to override the veto. Breske, former president of the Wisconsin Tavern League, had said earlier Monday that he would vote to override Doyle and seek legislation to legalize video poker in taverns.
But when Breske changed his mind late in the day, the Senate abruptly adjourned on a party-line vote. Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer (R-West Bend) explained the delay by saying GOP senators had concerns they wanted Doyle to address before they voted. But Senate Minority Leader Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) said it was clear that Republicans called off the vote because they lacked the necessary two-thirds majority to override.
Breske had told a number of tribal members early Monday that he would vote to override the veto. When asked later why he changed his mind, Breske said he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a deal between Doyle and the Tavern League that would avoid giving Doyle the political embarrassment of a veto override. Although the league ultimately rejected the agreement, the fact that Doyle was willing to compromise on some issues prompted Breske to reverse his position.
Breske said Doyle had agreed not to object to having tougher drunken driving language removed from his budget bill. To avoid losing federal aid, Doyle proposed that the state lower the blood-alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08 for evi-dence of drunken driving.
\”We worked all day, trying to cut a deal,\” Breske said. \”I thought it was workable, and they (the Tavern League) should have accepted it, but they didn\’t.\”