Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel manages to do the nearly impossible: it almost makes me feel sorry for former Democratic State Representative Dave Travis.
The Journal Sentinel uncovered the fact that Travis retired from the Legislature a couple days early last year, in order to avoid taking a hit on his retirement payments. By leaving the job six days early, Travis dodged the damaging effects of the Wall Street meltdown last year – the same strategy used by hundreds of other state employees.
I realize as a think tank, we’re generally supposed to be critical of legislators. If they’re not up to no good, why do we even exist? But on this one, wasn’t Travis simply doing what any normal, rational human being would do? Can any employee of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel say with a straight face that they would have sat by and watched their retirement take a $70 per month hit on principle?
Then, predictably, the Journal Sentinal goes to the bullpen to call in their phony scandal expert, Jay Heck of Common Cause. Heck (who I happen to like a great deal, incidentally) dutifully delivers this laughable quote:
Jay Heck, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause in Wisconsin, said Travis’ early resignation was legal. But the action will “further undermine people’s confidence in state government,” Heck said.
“In a sense, there’s a take-the-money-and-run aspect to it,” Heck said. “As an elected official, you would have hoped for something better.”
So my confidence in state government is supposed to be eroded because one meaningless, backbenching legislator did the rational thing and retired early to save money? Any word on the hundreds of other state employees who did the same thing and make a lot more than Dave Travis? (Granted, some of the sizzle in this story is due to Travis’ cantankerous declarations that he should have been making more money all along.)
Here at WPRI, we do poll after poll that shows public trust in the Legislature eroding. Much of it is certainly deserved. But a great deal of it is fed by professional scandal mongers whose livelihoods depend on convincing people all their elected officials are corrupt. As a result, the public has more trouble telling when corruption actually occurs.
If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that state employee benefits are too generous. Many of them pay nothing and stand to gain huge payouts upon retirement – which leads to some game playing when it’s time to leave. Travis’ retirement won’t cost the taxpayers an extra dime – the money has already been set aside for years in the state retirement fund. But to make a phony scandal out of Travis doing what any reasonable human would do seems to be a substantial reach.
On the other hand, perhaps we should pay more attention to stories like this, where Democratic Majority Leader Tom Nelson explains that his caucus may still be able to forge ahead with their legislative agenda, despite a special interest laying off staff:
Two Fox Valley legislators think legislation to toughen state drunken driving laws will proceed even as the state office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving announced job cuts.
State Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna, the Assembly majority leader, said MADD’s absence from the debate will not stop legislation.
“We intend to move forward on legislation regardless if groups are staffing up or downsizing,” he said. “It’s clear there has been an outcry from the public to toughen our drunken driving laws and I assume this subject will be addressed sometime this session.”
Oh really? You might be able to move forward on legislation without the help of a special interest group? That’s big of you, Tom Nelson.
Of course, Mothers Against Drunk Driving have a noble purpose – to reduce deaths on our roads. And I certainly agree with their goal of toughening our drunk driving laws in Wisconsin. But let’s not be confused – they are a special interest group looking to change state law, just as any other special interest group is. They have a paid lobbyist and report lobbying expenditures, just like every other lobbying organization. Their goals really aren’t an issue here.
Imagine Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald saying something like, “I know times are tough over at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, but I think we’ll still be able to forge ahead with the Senate Republican tax package anyway.” Reporters would be sleeping outside his office doors, waiting for the chance to dice him up like a pot roast.
So what causes more of an erosion in confidence in the Legislature – Dave Travis retiring early, or the Assembly Majority Leader hinting that his caucus takes its marching orders from special interests? I recognize the media has to cover something, considering we’re in an era of peace and prosperity and all.