October 31, 2007
In the struggle to pass our state budget, much was left on the floor of the conference committee, trimmed by the sharp knife of compromise. A split legislature – a Republican-controlled Assembly and a Democratic Senate – brought two very different visions of state government to the table. The end result required compromise.
This budget debate will be remembered as one of the longest and most contentious. It also will be remembered as the first serious debate about health care reform.
We cannot sustain rising costs in health insurance. Farmers, families, school boards, local government and especially small businesses are paying too much. Healthy Wisconsin was a reform plan that gave us the strongest dose of cost-control medicine ever considered in Wisconsin. The plan lies, cut out of the budget, on the floor of the conference committee – a casualty of compromise. The Assembly never offered a serious alternative to control health insurance costs.
We must continue the health care debate, understand the issues and work toward solutions that lower health insurance costs and cover everyone. All of us learned from the debate and it is nowhere near over. The Senate will take up Healthy Wisconsin as a separate bill and continue to work toward real reform.
Another change sought by the Senate was a move toward fairer taxes. Large numbers of multi-state and multi-national companies operate here in Wisconsin but pay no state taxes. This creates a disadvantage for Wisconsin-based companies who do pay state taxes. It also means the rest of us have to pay more. When some pay nothing, others have to pick up the slack.
Taxes pay for the services we all use. Large businesses want to locate where the roads are maintained, crime is low, schools are good, the environment is clean, and garbage is picked up. Like everyone else, large businesses should pay for services they consume.
The Senate added several proposals to the budget that would have closed corporate loopholes and moved the state in the direction of fairer taxes. As expected, the state’s largest business lobbying group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, was opposed to the proposals and lobbied hard to destroy them. The arguments went along the line of a ‘tax hell’ that would be created. What went unsaid were the uneven burdens we now bear.
In the end, the only agreement on changing taxes was an increase in the cigarette tax, a tax that hits the poor harder than others. Movement toward a fairer tax system is not over. But like health care, those who now benefit from the current system will not easily allow change.
The casualties of compromise reached into the very heart of the Senate when immediately following the budget vote, the Senate Democrats entered into a caucus debate on leadership.
The Majority Leader in the Senate is the most powerful role among Senators. The Leader brings bills to the floor, assigns senators to committees and can actually take a bill from one committee and assign it to another if they are displeased with what happens to the bill. The Leader provides vision and direction for the Senate Majority.
Our Leader has been Senator Judy Robson, a woman who has governed with wisdom and integrity. She used her power wisely to broker a reasonable budget deal, to empower others and to better our state. Unfortunately, in the rush to cast blame for the budget, she lost her role as leader in a surprise vote. This action divided Senate Democrats and makes solving the issues facing the state more difficult.
Unity among Senate Democrats is yet another casualty of compromise.