Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Legislation (page 1 of 2)

Why a Lame Duck Session Could be Good For Unions, but Bad for Taxpayers

duckFor the first time in ages, Wisconsin is going to have a new governor that did not rise to the state’s top job from the ranks of state government. Yet the specter of one of the current candidates is already affecting how the current state government does business.

The polls may be close, but Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has held a consistent lead in the gubernatorial race against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. This fact is not lost on the elected officials and bureaucrats in Madison, who have been bracing state government for a win by the conservative Walker.

For instance, Walker has said that if elected, he would make it his mission to stop construction of a federally-funded $810 million rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. As a response, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) reacted by shoveling as much money out the door as possible, to make it more difficult for a potential Governor Walker to stop its construction. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $300 million will be committed to the project by the end of 2010, up from the $50 million previously estimated.

Other legislative actions attempted to buttress state government against Walker’s potential victory. In its waning session days, the Wisconsin Legislature entertained proposals to extend the tenure of existing cabinet secretaries (making sure they stay in office well into Walker’s first term), and further restricting the Wisconsin governor’s veto authority – a move Democrats resisted during Jim Doyle’s tenure.

And while the session has ended and legislators are strewn throughout the state trying to get themselves re-elected, legislative Democrats still have one large pre-emptive chip to play: state employee union contracts.

Every two years, the Legislature sets aside funds to pay for unionized state employee raises. For the 2010-11 fiscal years, $351 million was budgeted for this compensation reserve fund.

Once the money is set aside, the state Department of Employment Relations (DER) is charged with negotiating contracts with the state’s 19 professional unions. Currently, all 19 units are actively negotiating with the state. Once agreement is reached with the state, each bargaining unit must go back to their members and ratify the contracts before they are voted on by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employee Relations.

Normally, this is a fairly lengthy process. But with a new governor entering office in three months, this isn’t a normal year.

Consider the fact that union-friendly Democrats hold control of the State Legislature all the way up until the new session begins on January 3rd of 2011 (the heads of both legislative houses are former labor leaders). Also, consider that former state senator and Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Joe Wineke is the DER representative negotiating on the state’s behalf. Wineke, currently the Administrator of the DER’s Division of Compensation and Labor Relations, has a long history of supporting union-friendly legislation, including “card check” proposals that would allow greater intimidation of workers hesitant to unionize.

The calculus isn’t difficult. There’s a large pot of money waiting to be handed out to unionized state employees, and the process is controlled by the legislators most likely to reward those employees with pay raises. And with a fiscal conservative like Scott Walker poised to take control of the governorship, this might be their last chance to reap the largesse of the state’s compensation fund.

If settlements are reached with the unions soon, it could only be a matter of weeks before the contracts are ratified and sent to the Legislature for approval. Democrats would have to bless the contracts during their lame duck session, which to this point would be unprecedented. But they’re two years away from another election, and many of them will be leaving the chambers for good when the new session begins.

The unions themselves have noticed. On their website, the Wisconsin State Employees Union has specifically called for a legislative special session in November or December, so they can get Governor Doyle’s signature on their contracts by January 1st:

“Our window of opportunity gets narrower if we decide to settle, we would want to gain legislative approval and the governor’s signature before January 1, meaning we only have November and part of December to have a special session called for ratification.”

What’s stopping them?

-October 20, 2010

I Guess There’s Still Time to Repeal It

A few weeks ago, I appeared on the “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes” show, on which we discussed the recent statewide smoking ban going into effect.  During our discussion, I made a rather ineloquent point that fell well short of the threshold to be considered “humorous.”

The story goes like this – I go see a lot of bands in Madison.  Before the smoking ban went into effect in the city, you’d always go home smelling like smoke.  But since the ban, I’ve noticed something else at concerts.  Namely, when everyone is packed up near the stage, people actually really smell bad.  They’re drunk, they’re sweaty, they smell like patchouli and dog hair (it is Madison, after all), and a lot of them attempt the “one cheek sneak” in close quarters.  I quickly figured that I enjoyed the masking scent of cigarettes more than the actual smell of drunk Madison residents.

So, on the show, when asked what I thought of the Madison smoking ban, I simply said I opposed it “because people stink.”  And that was it.  Didn’t make much sense without any explanation, and it pretty much killed the discussion.

ANYWAY, I feel much better about my flub after reading this letter sent to a Wisconsin state legislator regarding the ban.  Please take the time to follow this air-tight logic.  (Click on the image to make it full screen.)

Are Legislative Democrats Betting Against Tom Barrett?

At this point, nearly everyone expects 2010 to be a big Republican year at the ballot box.  The real challenge for the GOP is to temper their enthusiasm and not go completely overboard in predicting landslide wins across the board.

But it seems a lot of Democrats are bracing for a big Republican year as well – and legislating as such.  As the Wisconsin legislative session nears an end, a few curious Democrat-authored bills have been cropping up that appear to be laying the groundwork for a Republican gubernatorial administration.

Take, for instance, a new bill that would give the Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance a four-year term.  Currently, the Insurance Commissioner (Sean Dilweg, a really nice guy, incidentally) serves at the pleasure of the Governor.  This new bill would take that appointment power out of the governor’s hands for at least four years.

There’s really no reason to do this other than to lock in Governor Doyle’s cabinet appointees while a Scott Walker or Mark Neumann administration takes over.  If bills like this were to become law, a Governor Walker wouldn’t be able to appoint his own people to cabinet positions – he’d have to wait until their 4-year term was over.  Basically, the ghost of Jim Doyle would live to haunt Walker during his first term.

Then there’s this proposed constitutional change, which would weaken the governor’s vetoing authority.  Just two years ago, Wisconsin outlawed the so-called “Frankenstein Veto,” which allowed governors to stitch together sentences to create completely new laws.  (Full disclosure: I actually drafted the original resolution when I worked in the State Senate.)  At the time, there was no desire to go any further than the change we proposed – Democrats certainly would have blocked any move to further limit Jim Doyle’s veto authority.

But now, with a Republican administration seeming more likely, Democrats are willing to propose more stringent restrictions on the governor’s veto pen – something they refused to do in 2005, when Doyle was still popular.

These attempts to hamstring Scott Walker couldn’t be more obvious if they put a picture of him on the bills.  They should just go all the way and make them applicable “to any governor who used to be Milwaukee County Executive and whose name rhymes with stalker.”

It’s interesting, though, why Democrats would even propose these measures so close to an election.  If a dope like me can figure out that they’re nakedly partisan, then anyone can.  And it just makes them seem that they don’t have any faith in their candidate (rhymes with “carrot”) – so much so, that they’re pushing all their chips in to cripple an inevitable Walker administration.  Not exactly the shot of confidence the Mayor of Milwaukee needs.

Jeff Wood Does Not Care For Your Expulsion Attempt

By now, everyone knows the story of State Assemblyman Jeff Wood, who has been arrested three times within the span of about a year for OWI.  This makes five OWI arrests in all for Wood. While a committee has been formed to look at expelling Wood from the Assembly, it is clear Democrats will not take any action to remove Wood until they don’t need his vote anymore.

Other lawmakers, such as Republican Representative Steve Nass, have taken matters into their own hands.  Nass authored an Assembly Resolution to have Wood expelled from the Assembly.  He was the only one to sign on to his resolution, as it appears other representatives are content to let the process play out. (By the time any action is taken, it will be too close to the Fall elections for it to mean anything, as Wood has said he is not running for his seat again.)

But here’s where it gets good.  One would think that if you were the subject of an attempt to be thrown out of the Assembly, a little humility might be your best bet.  In Wood’s case, one would be wrong.

Wood actually drafted a wildly entertaining 12-page amendment to Nass’ resolution, in which he basically states his case to stay in the Assembly.  Wood goes through virtually every case in the last 50 years in which a legislator had a run-in with the law, and points out that none of them were sanctioned by the Assembly.  (He fails to point out, however, that none of them are currently serving, and many of them were out of office shortly thereafter.  Also, if you read through the offenses, none posed a threat to human safety in the same way as three OWIs did.)

On the second to last page, he cites a poll done by his local newspaper that says 57 percent of respondents believe no action should be taken against him, then he attacks Steve Nass, and finishes with this:

Resolved by the assembly, That Representative Jeffrey Wood not be held to a different standard than partisan legislators within this institution and based on the facts of this controversy the assembly takes no further action and the special committee on ethics and standards of conduct is hereby disbanded.

It’s pretty clear that Wood is resigned to the fact that he’s not going to get his name back anytime soon.  Don’t be surprised if he shows up on the floor of the Assembly wearing no pants, smoking a cigarette, and clutching a bottle of Jim Beam.  He’s got no one left to impress, and nothing left to accomplish.  Sadly, it’s his constituents who have paid the price.

Side note: My apologies to legislative attorney Stephen R. Miller, who actually had to draft that resolution.  Your time is more valuable than that.

Why Congress is Wigging Out

wiggingWhen men start to go bald, they basically have two options: they can man up, accept their fate and buy an expensive car, or they can try wearing a ridiculous toupee.

(I guess a third option is to get hair plugs – like they do in the Hair Club for Men. I love their ads, because they promise that I can go jet-skiing with my new hair – which is awesome, because I didn’t know how to jet ski before.)*

The thought process behind men wearing wigs is fascinating. They recognize that it looks ridiculous – there isn’t a person they pass on the street that doesn’t go “whoa – look at that rug!” But they do the internal calculus and determine that the fact they’re obviously wearing a toupee is preferable to the horrors of seeing the top of their scalp.

The examples of this are myriad. Everyone knows Elton John is a member of the Bald Brotherhood; yet he still shows up in concert wearing wigs that look like they formerly belonged to a cast member of “High School Musical.” Everyone seems to have forgotten that Jeremy Piven had less hair at age 28 than he does at age 43. And John Travolta’s ridiculous hairline goes up and down more often than John Edwards’ zipper. Yet all of them have determined that this is a better look than going natural.

(Incidentally, this is comparable to women who think having obvious plastic surgery is preferable to the horrors of aging naturally. Poor Meg Ryan, formerly as beautiful as the Mona Lisa, now looks like a Picasso.)

Members of Congress seem to be picking up on this meme. Congress’ favorability ratings barely hover above “having your lips stapled to a gorilla.” The American public is now fully aware Congress is incapable of creating jobs. Voters know that the House and Senate are going to raise their taxes and at the same time create government deficits as far as the eye can see, at the same time unemployment is in the double digits. (The chance that we all speak Chinese in 20 years currently stands at about 35%.)

And yet they have taken this dead animal carcass known as “health care” and stapled it securely to their heads. They think ramming through a government takeover of sixteen percent of the American economy is preferable to the way the public sees them now. Democrats in Congress honestly believe passing a partisan bill crafted in secret will give them the image makeover they need to maintain their large margins come election time.

When the health care takeover bill passes, your congressperson is going to come back to you brandishing their vote as if they’re a co-worker who magically gained a full head of hair overnight. They’re going to tell you that doing something was better than letting nature take its course. Yet unbeknownst to them, they will become even more of a laughingstock than when they started. Sadly, the cover Steve in human resources seeks only hurts him; the cover Congress is looking for could bring down the American economy.

So say it loud, my bald brothers – it’s nobody’s first choice to lose your hair, but trying to rectify it can make it worse. A lesson Congress should learn before they creep out voters for good.

NOTE: Be looking for the second portion of this series, “Why global warming is like a mustache.”

(Incidentally, when Congress does decide to purchase their toupee, I demand they do it at Morrie’s Wigs.)

* – Other popular strategies include “bald guy who grows a beard,” “bald guy who works out a lot,” “bald guy who wears sunglasses on the top of his head,” “bald guy who wears stylish hats,” “bald guy with lots of tattoos,” and “Michael Stipe.”

Lending Sheridan a Hand

So it seems the entirety of Wisconsin’s press corps (pronounced “core” for aspiring presidential candidates) is interested in where Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan has been privately introducing his motions.  When initially asked by reporters whether he was dating a lobbyist with pending interests before the Legislature, Sheridan denied it, saying the two were just “friends.”  A day later, Sheridan conceded that, in fact, the two were dating – but the damage had been done.  He lied to the media – and once you do that, you’re like a mouse dropped into a snake pit.  Reporters around the state are now digging around Sheridan’s campaign finance reports to see whether he was wining and dining his ladyfriend with his campaign funds.  Had he come clean at the time, this would be a two day story – instead, he’s hemorrhaging political capital.

I haven’t written anything about this yet, because I just figured Sheridan’s dating habits weren’t really my business.  Generally, these workplace rules about who two grown adults can or can’t date are nonsense.  They essentially just mean “don’t get caught.”  (Incidentally, there could have been a state law mandating someone from my workplace date me, and I wouldn’t have been able to find someone to go out with.)

Furthermore, I guess I was just willing to give the Legislature the benefit of the doubt and say they weren’t passing this payday loan bill because it’s a terrible bill.  (After all, Shanna Wycoff’s love couldn’t have been so powerful that it kept the Democrat-controlled Senate from passing a bill, too?  OR COULD IT?)

But it is interesting how the issue has been portrayed in the press since Sheridan came clean about the relationship.  Here there was a bill to regulate businesses – that actually occasionally throw a lifeline to people with credit so bad they can’t even get a checking account.  (Full disclosure: I actually used one of these payday loan places during college, when my credit was abysmal. Banks would actually send goons out front to tackle me before I even walked in the front door.)

But, of course, here comes a bill to stop people from freely engaging in contracts to which they happily agreed.  And because the bill was stopped cold, reporters and good government groups immediately blamed it on Sheridan’s conflict of interest.  Our favorite good government lefty immediately chimed in:

“There’s no way the public will ever buy his argument that his relationship will have no effect on his handling of the payday loan legislation,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of government watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Now, however, because of Sheridan’s conflict of interest, the Assembly feels like they have to pass the bill, to counter allegations that they’re corrupt.  Assembly Democrats claim that it’s pure coincidence that this bill is now moving like a cheetah on ice skates, after being a corpse two weeks ago.  (Again, pronounced “corpse.”)  Now, suddenly, the will of the people is being served – and forget about why that may be.  Nothing to see here.

So in case you’re keeping track at home: Holding up a liberal bill because the Speaker of the Assembly has a girlfriend is corruption.  Passing the same liberal bill because the Speaker of the Assembly has a girlfriend is just GOOD GOVERNMENT.

Naturally, now that the bill is moving, you won’t hear a word from any of these co-called “corruption watchdogs,” despite the bill only seeing action for the same reason it didn’t see any action before.  Their level of outrage is directly commensurate to the amount they agree with the legislation being held up.  Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the bill passing through a committee is curiously lacking any good government group quotes.

So while I generally give Sheridan a pass, it is worth noting that he tends to be the kiss of death wherever he goes.  He was a union leader at the General Motors plant in Janesville, which is now defunct.  Then he took over the speakership of the Assembly, which immediately took a bad budget and made it worse.  And if he stays on as Speaker, it almost seems likely that the Assembly will flip back into Republican hands under his watch.  So while this “scandal” may not be that big of a deal to some, it could end up costing him his political career if reporters start to come back with actionable intelligence on his nationwide trysts.

Prevailing Wage Laws: Good for the Public Interest, or Special Interests?

Former Wisconsinite George Leef has written an excellent article for the Cato Institute that discusses “prevailing wage” laws for public projects.  (Wisconsin is a prevailing wage state.)  Prevailing wage laws essentially set the wages workers may earn on public projects, usually ones in which the labor not subject to a public bidding process.

In the article, Leef argues that rather than promoting the public interest, prevailing wage laws serve only to further the interests of labor.  He concludes:

The purpose and effect of prevailing wage laws is to eliminate competition on labor costs on government construction projects.

Bidders may search for the least-cost combination of other factors, but labor costs are fixed by decree. This suppression of competition is a substantial benefit to a small segment of the population, chiefly construction unions and workers, at the expense of the rest of society, which must pay more than would otherwise be necessary for projects subject to prevailing wage mandates.

Efforts by prevailing wage proponents to depict the laws as having some social benefit fail. Fixing the price of labor does nothing to increase safety, train new workers, promote quality or any other desirable objective. Nor is there any social benefit in “protecting” union wage standards and work rules from competitive pressure.

Prevailing wage laws are special interest legislation trying to masquerade as wise public policy. People prefer to minimize or eliminate competition in markets where they sell, while enjoying the benefits of competition in markets where they buy. Prevailing wage laws are one of the various approaches organized labor uses to shut down competition in labor markets. Adam Smith was correct: It is bad public policy for government to assist any group of sellers in their desire to fix prices and stifle competition. That is why all prevailing wage laws should be repealed.

Read the whole thing here.

The Legislature’s Disorder of Succession

Having already solved all the state’s problems, the Wisconsin Legislature this week turns to the difficult chore of making up imaginary problems to fix.

The Wisconsin Senate is slated to take up a bill that would allow legislators to designate between three and seven “secret successors,” in the event all hell breaks loose and an “enemy attack” leaves the state with nine Senate vacancies or 25 open Assembly seats.  One could argue that the most serious threat to the state is actually the Legislature itself, but it’s more fun to think about the state in total chaos.  Come to think of it, would anyone really notice?

As long as we’re going to take a few hours on the floor coming up with possible scenarios, the Senate might as well amend the bill to capture all possibilities.  What would be the protocol if the Capitol building suddenly became immersed in lime jello?  What if jetpack-equipped alligators learned to type and seized control of state government via cyber-attack?  What if Brett Favre throws four touchdowns against the Packers on October 5th?  Half the state will have a heart attack, the rest will be set ablaze.

Fortunately, WisconsinEye was able to put together a training video on what to do in the event of the most likely threat to the State Capitol of all:

[flv: 480 360]

And how exactly does this secret “successor list” work?  It’s supposed to be private, but does the person on the list even know they’re on it?  They just get a call one day telling them they’ve been called up to duty to serve in the State Senate?  More importantly, why does the list of successors go all the way up to seven? – what happens when Dawn Marie Sass runs out of family members?

I’m just laying down the marker here – I am entering my name into consideration for any elected official that wants to make me as one of their successors.  Then I, along with the jetpack wearing alligators, will plot the destruction of state government, install myself as leader, then pass a law granting myself immunity from prosecution when everyone finds out my plot.  It’s FOOLPROOF.

In all seriousness, nobody has confidence in the Legislature’s ability to solve the problems it can actually see.  Does anyone believe they can fix the problems it can’t?

Wisconsin Declared a Terrorist-Free Zone

If you were worried about Al-Qaeda operatives secretly infiltrating your Wednesday night bowling league, have no fear.  State Representative Dean Kaufert has declared Wisconsin off limits to terrorists, drafting a bill banning the placement of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in the Dairy State.

Guantanamo Warden:  “Pack your bags, boys – you’re going to Wisconsin.”

Al-Qaeda Terrorist Bomber: “Please – anywhere else – the taxes are too high there!

What Kaufert doesn’t realize is that our way of life in Wisconsin is already being threatened by a terrorist on the loose – one that never even served in Guantanamo. His actions will likely bring down the state’s financial infrastructure, rock our shared ethos to the core, and have Wisconsin families cowering in their basements until the nightmare is over.  So if anyone sees this man, please alert the Department of Homeland Security.

Actually, this bill should get a lot of support, assuming it can be amended to also include Cubs fans.

Cool Story, Representative Sinicki

Last week, an Assembly committee held a hearing on a bill that would ban the use of racially offensive school mascots in Wisconsin.  State Representative Chris Sinicki delighted the crowd with her own puzzling story about the “White Wizards.” (Skip ahead to the 1 hour, 25 minute mark of the video.)

Your tax dollars at work.

Observing the Law of Rule

The summer of my twelfth year, my father dictated to me my summer job: I was going to have to paint the picket fence around our backyard. I had never painted anything before, so I punished him by peppering him with inane questions. “Where do I start?” “What size brush should I use?” And so on. “I don’t care how you do it – just get it done!” he snapped. At least that’s what I think he said, as my ears were ringing from the accompanying smack upside my head.

As it turns out, state law very much follows “dad law.” When the legislature passes a law and the governor signs it, it constitutes a directive – “paint the fence.” But in many cases, it leaves the minute details up to the state department that will be carrying out the broad new law – “just get it done.” Departments accomplish the “I don’t care how you do it” part by passing “rules,” which reside comfortably in legal purgatory, somewhere between real laws and complete anarchy.

In many cases, the Legislature leaves their newly passed statutes overly broad, to avoid codifying every little detail in state law. For instance, state law dictates what crimes will land you in jail. Rules determine what kind of nudie magazines you will be allowed to view when you’re in the joint. Rules govern everything from how big a pier you can have on your house to what classes your barber has to take to obtain a license, including – and this is not a joke – 35 “theory hours” of “Shaving, beard and mustache shaping and trimming.” Who can forget Aristotle’s treatise on mustache waxing?

Yet rules, while having the force of law, are passed in a peculiar way that circumvents the traditional legislative process – and opens the door for hijinks. Rules changes are drafted by a department, then sent to standing legislative committees, who may then object to the rule if they believe it to be a bad idea. If it draws an objection, the rule goes to the Joint Rules Committee, where it can be suspended. However, if it is suspended, the committee must introduce bills changing the law to remedy their percieved problem with the rule. If those bills do not pass, the rule goes into effect – without ever having been altered by the legislature.

Thus, in effect, rules are like laws in reverse. Whereas passing a new law requires a bill proactively passing through both houses and being signed by the governor, rules essentially start as law and require bipartisanship to invalidate them. Thus, in the case of a split Legislature, one party can always block an objection to a rule made by their party’s governor.

This has become increasingly problematic in recent years, when departments are taking more liberties with their rulemaking authority. Instead of merely carrying out the directives given them by state law, some departments are granting themselves entirely new lawmaking ability, knowing that a split legislature will likely pave the way.

For instance, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has voted to promulgate a rule that grants their members the sole legal authority to regulate campaign advertising during election season. While the law creating the GAB merely charges them with enforcing current election law, they have decided to settle this contentious issue that has confounded the U.S. Supreme Court for decades by merely making up their own law. This isn’t painting the fence – this is building a whole new picket fence that runs right through our living room.

Other rulemaking attempts have been equally as brazen. In 2005, Governor Jim Doyle actually attempted to raise the state’s minimum wage via administrative rule, knowing that he could simply veto any bill passed by Republicans if they attempted to object to the change. The State Supreme Court is attempting to use the rules process to wrestle legislative redistricting away from the Legislature, which clearly usurps legislative authority to set its own Senate and Assembly districts. Recently, the Supreme Court enacted a rule that changes the instances when tribal courts have jurisdiction over non-tribal members, which will have the effect of denying many litigants their right to a trial by a Wisconsin court. In a blistering dissent, Justice Patience Roggensack observed the new rule “undermines federal and state constitutional and statutory rights of litigants.”

New laws are the bright, shiny new baubles on which we all like to gaze. Enacting them takes all the elements of a good political novel – intrigue, secret deals, undue influence, and bloated, self-important speeches on the legislative floor. On the other hand, administrative rules have all the sexiness of Jim Doyle in spandex bike pants. In fact, in contrast to laws, rules only actually pass when nobody thinks to publicize them. But like Doyle’s bike pants, the rulemaking process is beginning to expand beyond the limit set by law (and good taste.) Maybe these bureaucrats need my dad to smack them in the head with a paintbrush.

-March 23, 2009

A Very Convincing Argument

A state legislator’s office sent this to me this afternoon.  It’s a constitutent letter meant to convince legislators that the state should implement domestic partner benefits for state employees.  (I changed the names to protect the innocent:)

Subject: Please Support Domestic Partnership Protections

Representative Prince Fielder
State Capitol
PO Box 6666
Madison, WI 53707

Dear Representative Fielder,

Use this space to share your story with your senator. Look at the the Talking Points and Recommendations above for tips.

Cephus Moses
333 Happy Meal Blvd
Point Place, WI 55555

Of course, this is a form e-mail that interest groups use to get people to contact their legislators.  Unfortunately, you’re supposed to actually fill it out for it to be effective.  Genius.

Felons for Thee, Not for Me

Poor Rod Blagojevich. First, he gets pinched by the feds, and now – after he politely declined an offer to resign his governorship – Illinois legislators are beginning their own investigation into whether he should be impeached. Apparently, the legislature is trying to shake the impression that Illinois is to political corruption what Florida is to flamingoes.

Of course, defending Blagojevich is like defending rabies. However, while we all have a pretty good idea that he was trying to auction off Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, he hasn’t yet been convicted of anything. But that hasn’t slowed the calls for his ouster from legislators looking for political cover. It’s gotten so bad, some Illinois legislators could improve their image by getting their picture taken with George Bush.

In fact, herein lies one of the true ironies of the whole Blagojevich scandal. It appears elected officials of all parties are falling over themselves demanding the Illinois governor be thrown out of his job before he’s convicted of anything, in order to disassociate themselves from him. It makes sense, given what the evidence shows to this point. (One wonders whether Democrats are going to demand that Blagojevich be spared prison time, as he is one of the “nonviolent” offenders of which they believe the prison system is overflowing.)

But while politicians are more than willing to fire colleagues that reflect poorly on them, they never extend that courtesy to private businesses. In Wisconsin, an employee cannot be fired, prevented from being hired, or otherwise have any action taken against them because of arrest or conviction record. So if Rod Blagojevich was working the drive-thru at Popeye’s Fried Chicken and charged with a felony, his coworkers would be stuck listening to his foul-mouthed tirades about f’ing biscuits and gravy in perpetuity.

In 2005, the University of Wisconsin System came under fire from legislators when it was discovered that the system employed 40 convicted felons. Most were unclassified positions, like janitors. Actually, this number seems fairly low for any organization that employs 32,000 people. Look in the cubicle next to you – chances are that little old lady next to you is either a felon or would beat you in the head with a rake if given the chance.

So what did the UW Board of Regents do as a response to this revelation? They passed a new rule saying that action could be taken against any employee that is merely charged with a felony. Forget due process – they’re a government entity and they have some face to save. Once passed, this rule completely disappeared into the ether, never to be discussed again – although it almost certainly contradicts Wisconsin’s fair employment law. But it’s state government – so they have special rights that those silly private businesses shouldn’t.

According to Wisconsin state law – passed by the Legislature, of course – felons are prohibited from serving in the state Senate or Assembly. Clearly, it is the one job that requires so much integrity that it shan’t even be held by someone convicted of a felony 20 year ago. Apparently, the Legislature was concerned that it would make them look worse if there were a felon in their midst. Yet while they forbid any of those dirty criminals from working in their place of business, they mandate that they have to work with you. Clearly, the integrity of your workplace isn’t as important as that of our elected officials. THEY HAVE A VERY HIGH PUBLIC IMAGE TO UPHOLD, YOU KNOW.

Just ask this guy.

-December 16, 2008

Outsourcing State Government

In the 2008 presidential election, the economy featured prominently among the issues debated by the two candidates. The collapse of the housing sector interjected itself into the campaign, and swung the electorate solidly in favor of eventual winner Barack Obama. Obama was able to sell his message on the economy more ably than John McCain, capably reassuring American workers that their jobs were safe.

One of Obama’s primary economic talking points dealt with the outsourcing of American jobs, and what could be done to prevent it. One of the cornerstones of his economic plan was repealing “tax breaks” to “companies that shipped our jobs overseas.” Naturally, workers who already fear for their jobs want to do everything to make sure that job stays on American soil – and in an economy in collapse, that message resonates even more strongly.

Yet, as is the case in most campaigns, the truth became a casualty amid lofty rhetoric, shifting plans, and political charges. In reality, this campaign rhetoric is already light years behind the times – in an age of digital information and instantaneous delivery of data worldwide, jobs can be created in places like India and China at a fraction of the cost. Armies of Indian college students graduate every year, anxious to shed their native accents and join the global economy. They staff call centers helping Americans fix their computers, get credit cards, and order pay per view movies. They read ultrasounds sent to them digitally by American doctors and do legal research for American attorneys.

And, in many cases, they make American business more viable by holding down costs. Outsourcing allows many American companies to stay in business here in the U.S. by making profit possible. So while their customer service call center may be in Bangalore, their headquarters may employ hundreds of Americans here at home. And the cheaper they can run one arm of the company, the more they can offer the domestic employees. Furthermore, outsourcing allows companies to sell their goods cheaper, which benefits American consumers. Without it, we would pay more for virtually every good and service – as a result, American companies would sell fewer products and be able to hire fewer workers. This is why, even as jobs have been fleeing to other countries en masse, the unemployment rate in America has remained low.

While outsourcing is a worldwide issue, it has deep roots right here in Wisconsin. With an economy heavily dependent on manufacturing, Wisconsin workers are especially sensitive to the threat of their jobs being outsourced to a foreign country. As such, it has become a viable talking point for state politicians.

For the past two legislative sessions, Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan and State Senator Judy Robson have introduced what they have named the “American Jobs Act.” This proposed legislation would prevent state government from contracting for services performed outside the United States. For example, the State of Wisconsin contracts with JP Morgan Chase to provide food stamp recipients with electronic bank transfer cards (the Wisconsin QUEST card). When a recipient has a problem with their QUEST Card and they need to call a service center, they are not speaking to somebody in Wisconsin or the United States, but rather somebody from India or Mexico, whose wages are paid by Wisconsin taxpayers.

According to the bill’s authors, when state government outsources work, “we lose the income from those jobs, which support families and communities, pay for government services through taxes, and fuel the American economy. It is especially egregious when taxpayer dollars pay for those jobs in other countries.”

The Pocan/Robson jobs bill is illustrative, but perhaps not in the way the authors intended. It is clear state government contracts with businesses that outsource jobs, in order to keep costs down. If Wisconsin were to limit contracts to businesses that operate wholly in the U.S., it would likely substantially increase the cost of running the state programs those contracts support.

As has been shown in previous WPRI reports, Wisconsin currently has an imbalance between the taxes it collects and spending it conducts. For years, the state has had to use damaging budget gimmicks and schemes to keep state government afloat, as elected officials haven’t had the fortitude to scale back programs – in fact, at times when Wisconsin carried large deficits, the Governor and Legislature actually created expensive new state programs.

This brings up a provocative, and somewhat uncomfortable question. Would it be in Wisconsin’s best interest to outsource more of its services? If the Legislature isn’t willing to control costs by reining in spending, can the state follow the example of the private sector and utilize cheap labor to control costs?

The following points come to mind:

  • Outsourcing more state government work wouldn’t necessarily affect Wisconsin jobs – much of the work is likely done in other states, anyway.
  • Holding costs down in some areas through more extensive use of outsourcing allows the state to reallocate funds to programs with a higher priority. For example, money saved by shifting a call center overseas may allow the state to fund Medicaid or public schools without having to raise taxes on citizens.
  • When developing countries get American jobs, it creates new markets for American products. As India and China expand, so do the potential consumers of Miller Beer, Harley-Davidson, and Fox Valley paper companies – which helps retain Wisconsin jobs.
  • Wisconsin currently participates in the World Trade Organization Government Procurement Agreement. Under the agreement, preferences in favor of the United States over a certain dollar amount are forbidden. Limiting outsourcing would actually put the state in violation of this trade agreement.

When the Legislature convenes to begin addressing the current $5.4 billion budget shortfall faced by the state, it will debate whether to cut spending or, more likely, which taxes to raise. One thing that likely won’t be discussed at length is how to stretch our tax dollars further to avoid tax increases or service cuts – which could be accomplished by finding cheaper ways to pay for routine state operations. If we can stop pretending there are such things as “American jobs” anymore, we can help keep money in the pockets of Wisconsin workers and help the state’s economy get moving again.

-December 3, 2008

Standing Up for Your Right to Dry

For centuries, all men have really wanted is the opportunity to have some woman look at their underwear. We have devised myriad strategies (jobs, cars, combovers, breath fresheners) in hopes of creating just the right moment for a lovely lady to gaze at our drawers. Fortunately for the men of the world, having people look at your tighty-whiteys could now actually save the planet.

Everyone these days is “going green.” Television stations turn off the lights for 30 seconds to convince you that somehow they’re being environmentally responsible. Companies throw the “green” tag on things like cleaning products and bottled water, despite their questionable environmental value. However, some businesses have seen millions of dollars in savings by “going green.” A young professionals’ group in Milwaukee lists a green way of life as one of the top reasons young people would be attracted to a city.

Obviously, if citizens continue to buy bogus “green” products at the same rate they currently are, it won’t do a thing to help the environment. Yet often times, government and nosy neighbors can stand in the way of green activities that actually matter. For instance, local governments and neighborhood associations across the U.S. have declared war on outdoor laundry lines, citing their lack of aesthetic quality. Some environmentalists are starting to rebel, pointing out how much energy it saves to hang your clothes out to dry rather than using an electric dryer. (Plus, many of them need the extra space in their laundry rooms for all the heat lamps and aluminum foil.)

In 2005, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, there were 88 million dryers in the United States. Annually, these dryers consume 1,079 kilowatt hours of energy per household, creating 2,224 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Enter Project Laundry List, a tax-free 501(c)(3) group that claims to be fighting for individuals’ rights to leave their underwear flapping in the breeze. (The group’s website doesn’t show a Wisconsin chapter…yet.) Their website lays out the various state and local ordinances banning outdoor laundry lines, and urges introduction of “right to dry” legislation that protects the environmentally smart practice. (Several states have actually passed legislation pre-empting local governments’ right to ban laundry lines.)

The site also contains testimonials of people who associate laundry lines with the simpler days of yore, when they played in the backyard as children amongst drying laundry. Laundry line advocates also point out that hanging up clothes outside involves physical activity and spending more time outside with your neighbors – things society could use more of. (Then again, in the old days, there was less of a chance of some dirtbag stealing your bra so he could sell it to buy meth.)

Yet neighborhood associations (which rank somewhere between al-Qaeda and rat poison in public favorability rankings) maintain their right to promote pleasing aesthetics within their fiefdoms. They think nobody wants to see their neighbors’ unmentionables in public. (If you knew my neighbors, you’d recognize this as a valid concern.) It has been said that outdoor laundry is seen by some as a “flag of poverty”

This begs a larger question – how involved does government (or a neighborhood association) have to be in protecting us from the horrors of seeing things we don’t like? Government surely isn’t going to come in and force your co-worker to trim his gross nose hair. There’s no reason we need laws to ban us from having to view laundry. If you don’t like the sights, sounds, and smells of the outside world, go live in a bunker.

As in any case of public/private rights conflicts, accommodations can be made. Outdoor laundry can be limited to the back yard, to protect the most sensitive of citizens from having to see a skid mark on their stroll through the neighborhood. Outdoor drying can be allowed on one day per week. There are options here.

Few opportunities arise where people can make a meaningful environmental difference and save money at the same time. Our government just needs to throw us a line.

-July 8, 2008

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