Two key Wisconsin Senate Democrats face challengers from within their own party as the Legislature’s Aug. 9 primary looms.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse and Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee are among a handful of lawmakers who will be fighting for their jobs in the election that will set the candidate lineup for November’s general election.
Shilling and Taylor are the only Senate incumbents who face challengers, but they’re the most prominent names in the primary in either house.
All 99 Assembly seats and 16 of the Senate’s 32 seats will be in play in November.
Jared Landry’s primary bid against Shilling is a long shot. She holds a key leadership position as Senate minority leader, shaping responses to Republican proposals and helping other Democrats campaign around the state.
The Associated Press’ attempts to reach Landry through possible listings for his home and cell phone were unsuccessful. In an interview with the La Crosse Tribune, he declined to criticize Shilling. He indicated that he planned to use the Senate as a springboard to run for governor and president.
Online court records show Landry has a lengthy misdemeanor criminal record, including convictions for fourth-offense operating while intoxicated, resisting an officer, marijuana possession, property damage and disorderly conduct. But he’s still eligible for office — only convicted felons are barred from running.
Although Taylor holds a leadership position as a member of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, she faces a much stiffer challenge from state Rep. Mandela Barnes of Milwaukee. He’s likely to receive national support through Wisconsin Working Families, the group that provided over $300,000 to back Sen. Chris Larson in his failed attempt to oust Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele earlier this year.
Taylor is known for her fiery temperament, as evidenced in speeches she’s made on both the Joint Finance Committee and the Senate floor.
Barnes said in a telephone interview that their district needs “transformative leadership.” She said Taylor voted for a bill that regulated payday loans but didn’t cap loan interest rates in 2010, voted for a bill allowing concealed carry in 2011 and introduced what he called a “takeover” bill in 2009 that would have allowed Milwaukee’s mayor to appoint the city’s school district superintendent.
Taylor said the payday loan bill did limit the amount of loans and lawmakers, adding that lawmakers often have to compromise and settle for bills that don’t go as far as they’d like. As for concealed carry, she said people have a right to bear arms. The school bill was an attempt to do something to improve Milwaukee schools, she said.
Taylor said Barnes is “Monday-morning quarterbacking” and instead should help her as she tries to improve conditions at Wisconsin’s youth prison in Irma rather than attack her.
On the Assembly side, Democrats Josh Zepnick and Leon Young, both of Milwaukee, Lisa Subeck of Madison and Sondy Pope of Mount Horeb all face primary challengers. Rep. Nancy Vander Meer of Tomah is the only Republican in either house in a primary.
Regardless of the primary results, Democrats will be hard-pressed to regain control of either house this fall. Thanks largely to a redistricting plan GOP lawmakers established in 2011 that consolidated their power in districts across the state, Republicans hold a 19–14 edge in the Senate and an all but insurmountable 63–36 advantage in the Assembly.
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist and himself a former Democratic legislator, predicted the primaries will be a quiet, underwhelming affair after an April presidential primary that saw the highest turnout in more than 40 years.
Few people vote in primaries to begin with, and this August’s ballot features no statewide races, Lee said. That means likely only a party’s hard-core members will show up.
Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.
The two rivals trying to unseat Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, whom Gov. Scott Walker appointed to the court last October, warned of the influence of partisan politics on the state’s highest court at a candidate forum on Jan. 27.
Bradley and challengers JoAnne Kloppenburg and Joe Donald appeared together for the first time at a forum hosted by the Milwaukee Bar Association, three weeks ahead of the Feb. 16 primary that will narrow the field to two before the April 5 general election.
All three are seeking a 10-year term to replace Justice Patrick Crooks, who died in September. By appointing the relatively inexperienced Bradley, Walker ensured that she’d have the huge advantage of incumbency heading into the elections. Judicial incumbents nearly always win re-election, but some political observers say this appointment could backfire, given Walker’s low approval rating. It could turn the race into a referendum against the unpopular governor.
“It is unprecedented for a Wisconsin governor of any party to appoint a declared judicial candidate to the Supreme Court this close to an election,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling at the time of the appointment. “This power grab sets a terrible precedent and doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“The fact that Walker twice named her to judgeships before makes her ‘Walker’s candidate,’ Kloppenburg said in a statement.
“The Bradley campaign and the Republican Party are essentially one and the same,” said a statement from Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joe Donald’s campaign manager, Andy Suchorski, at the time of her appointment.
Neither Kloppenburg nor Donald applied for the vacancy, saying it’s unethical for an announced candidate to apply for a judicial seat while campaigning for it. Even though each is more qualified, they would never have been considered anyhow, given their lack of right-wing credentials.
Walker has appointed Bradley, who has only about four years of judicial experience, to every judicial position that she’s held.
Bradley was so certain he would appoint her to the high court that she registered a website as a Supreme Court justice before the applications were even due.
On Jan. 27, however, Bradley pledged to run “a positive and nonpartisan” campaign and said she welcomes support from anyone who offers it.
She’s a Walker donor, however, and her past support has come primarily from the Republican Party and the dark money groups that pile huge amounts of cash into the coffers of tea party political candidates.
Walker’s first appointment of Bradley helped her narrowly win her race to retain the circuit court job he gave her. But $167,000 from the Koch brother’s Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce also contributed to that victory. The Koch brothers and their corporate allies oppose all government regulations, all watchdog groups and limits on money in politics, and all government assistance programs, including college aid, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Their ultimate goal is to sell off all public land to corporate interests and privatize all government functions except the military.
Bradley is their perfect candidate. A former president of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society, a far-right libertarian lawyers group, she’s also belonged to the Thomas Moore Society, a conservative Catholic legal group, and the Republican National Lawyers Association. She began her legal career protecting corporations from liability lawsuits and doctors from malpractice suits.
At the Jan. 27 forum, Kloppenburg, a state appellate judge who was elected to that position on her own, said she would accept campaign funds from any groups except political parties. She said her experience makes her best to do “justice without fear or favor” and to “stand up to special interests.”
Donald, a Milwaukee County Circuit judge, touted his independence. He said the election is important to restore integrity at the Supreme Court and that without a new independent, “we’re stuck with an ideologue on the court for the next 30 years,” referring to Bradley, who is only 44 years old.
Wisconsin is expected to take in $100 million less in revenue than it expected by the end of the 2015–17 budget, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported today.
The shortfall is the result of a $158.2 million decrease in projected tax collection. Some spending will have to be cut from the budget.
Democrats said that tax revenues have fallen short because Republicans have failed to generate jobs that would increase Wisconsinites’ take-home pay. Several noted the irony of the news coming so closely on the heals of Gov. Scott Walker’s State of the State address, during which he touted the state’s economy and finances under his leadership.
Walker has slashed many state programs in order to provide large tax breaks to the wealthy and to corporations. That strategy, known as “trickle-down” economics, has been the mainstay of the GOP’s financial strategy for nearly four decades.
“Big tax breaks for businesses do not trickle down to the pockets of our citizens,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “Let’s try something new like prioritizing funding for education, increasing the minimum wage and roll back some business tax breaks in favor of middle class tax cuts. We know what works to improve the economy, unfortunately there is not a Republican out there that will consider proven solutions.”
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said, “The first step toward improving our state’s finances is accepting federal BadgerCare funds to provide health care to roughly 80,000 Wisconsinites at a savings of more than $300 million to taxpayers over the next two years.”
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D–La Crosse, said, “Democrats will continue to fight for investments in local schools, worker training and infrastructure projects to create jobs and move our state forward.”
The budget shortfall comes after Wisconsin experienced the worst year for mass layoffs and plant closing since 2010 last year.
But the shortfall for 2015 is better than the $2 billion deficit the state had leading into the 2015–17 budget negotiations.
Wisconsin’s Democratic leaders issued a flurry of statements, analyses and rebuttals in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s annual State of the State address. Many questioned his cherry-picking of economic data, blasted Walker-backed policies promoting secrecy and cronyism, and illuminated gaps in the speech’s coverage.
State of the State video responses from Sen. Shilling and other Democratic caucus members can be viewed and downloaded here. Below is a written compilation of several Democratic reactions, beginning with the Democratic Party’s televised official response from Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca:
From Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha
During his speech tonight, Governor Walker offered nothing more than Band-Aid proposals that are anemic and weak compared to the significant challenges we face.
The numbers are staggering.
In 2015, roughly 10,000 hardworking Wisconsinites received layoff notices, the highest single-year total since the governor took office. Wisconsin still ranks in the bottom third for job growth and worst in the Midwest, and our middle class is shrinking faster than any other state. We rank third-worst for student loan debt and our roads are also third-worst in the nation. And Republicans have cut $1 billion from public K-12 schools since 2010.
Wisconsin should be a leader; however, under Republicans we are falling behind. When I travel the state I hear people say we should invest in our public schools, level the playing field for the middle class, promote good-paying jobs and invest in our roads and bridges.
The truth is the State of our State is being neglected by Republicans putting their own needs above the needs of everyday Wisconsinites.
Last year, legislative Republicans turned their backs on Wisconsin’s interests in order to help Governor Walker in his failed run for president.
The Republican agenda included:
- Shifting $800 million from public schools to unaccountable private voucher schools over the next decade;
- A quarter billion dollar cut to our world-class university system;
- Driving down wages for hardworking families;
- And rejecting federal funding that would have meant health care coverage for tens of thousands more of our citizens.
This past fall, Republicans opened Wisconsin for corruption with an agenda designed to consolidate their own power and enrich the special interest groups bankrolling their campaigns. Perhaps most egregious was their late-night, secretive effort to dismantle our open records laws so they could hide their actions from the public.
It is clear after that Republicans cannot be trusted to do the right thing for the people of Wisconsin.
The difference between Democrats and Republicans at this juncture could not be clearer. My Democratic colleagues and I have made growing our economy and rebuilding the middle class our top priorities.
Our “Economic Opportunity Agenda” would help create good-paying jobs, close the skills gap by connecting workers with available jobs, increase wages and make us more competitive in a global economy. Our “Bring Back the Middle Class” package would boost retirement security and provide relief from high child-care costs and student debt.
Today alone on the Assembly floor, Democrats voted for proposals that would ensure significant investments in our public schools and affordable health care coverage for tens of thousands of Wisconsinites that, incidentally, would save Wisconsin taxpayers more than $300 million over the next two years. Democrats also voted for much-needed relief for more than a million student loan borrowers and equal pay protections for women in the workplace.
Sadly, Republicans rejected every single one of these bills.
Yet even in the face of Republicans’ inaction on these important issues and their betrayal of your trust and your interests, I believe the State of the People of Wisconsin is resilient.
I am inspired every day by the hardworking men and women who make up the fabric of our state. Wisconsin is in need of bold action for our workers and middle-class families and Democrats are ready to lead.
As Republicans continue to stack the deck against ordinary Wisconsinites and obscure their harmful agenda with election-year distractions, Democrats are focused on leveling the playing field and rebuilding the middle class the Republican agenda has hurt so deeply.
You can trust Democrats to restore opportunity and grow wages for ordinary, hardworking people.
You can trust Democrats to work to rebuild a strong middle class.
You can trust Democrats to grow an economy that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.
While legislative Republicans pursue an agenda focused on helping special interests and their own self-interests, legislative Democrats will continue to advocate for the people’s agenda in 2016 and beyond – but we need your help.
One of the proudest moments of 2015 was when you rose up and demanded the Republicans end their assault on open records. Your hard work and advocacy forced Republicans to back down, and you can do it again.
I encourage you to talk to your neighbors, friends and families about the direction our state is headed. Become engaged and make your voice heard. Together, we can put Wisconsin back on the right track and make sure the State of our State is stronger for all our citizens.
Thank you for watching, and as always, my fellow Wisconsinites, Forward!
From Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-LaCrosse
Over the last five years, we’ve seen deep cuts that have limited economic growth, stifled innovation and denied thousands of families the opportunity to get ahead. Democrats continue to believe that the best way to move our state forward is by restoring investments in our schools, infrastructure and worker training programs.
When it comes to the challenges facing our state, we need solutions, not sound bites. Placing more students in unpaid internships isn’t going to help the nearly one million Wisconsinites burdened by $19 billion in student loan debt. It’s time to follow the lead of other states like Minnesota and allow families to refinance their student debt at a lower interest rate just like you can with home and auto loans.
Democrats remain committed to creating a childcare tax credit for working families, supporting new jobs through infrastructure investments and expanding retirement security options for hardworking residents. With Gov. Walker’s presidential bid behind us, it’s time to look forward at ways we can improve our state and rebuild our middle class.
From Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh
1. The truth behind Wisconsin’s workforce numbers
CLAIM: “We have at least according to two of the statistics from the federal government, the highest number of people last year working in the last 20 years.”
In May of 2010, Wisconsin had 3,074,000 people in the labor force (BLS). In May of 2015, Wisconsin had 3,076,000 people in the labor force. The labor force growth rate over the past 5 years is an anemic 0.01%. Compare that to the growth of Indiana (.41%), Iowa (.31%), and Minnesota (.61%) over the same time period.
CLAIM: “We’re one of the top 10 states in terms of the percentage of people in the work force.” (http://www.wearegreenbay.com/news/local-news/state-of-the-state-preview) 1/17/16
This is not significant or new in any meaningful way. Wisconsin has typically had a higher labor participation rate than the rest of the U.S. going back to 1990. And it was higher than it is now under Governor Jim Doyle. Regionally, it has been higher than all neighboring states except Iowa and Minnesota.
What is significant is that Wisconsin’s labor participation rate has dropped nearly 6 percentage points since 1995, exceeding all but Indiana and Michigan. This reflects that Wisconsin’s labor force as a percentage of population appears to be shrinking faster than most of our neighboring states.
2. Low unemployment + slow job growth ≠ successful economic measure
CLAIM: “A recent revised report from the federal government shows that the unemployment rate in Wisconsin is the lowest it has been since the spring of 2001.”
Wisconsin does have low unemployment by almost any measure, although not as low as 15 other states.
So how can our unemployment rate be so low if our job creation rate is so bad?
The answer is that Wisconsin is losing workers at nearly every age level over the prime working years, with more people moving out of the state than are moving in. And the people who are moving out are predominantly 20-to-50 year olds. Had Wisconsin’s population growth stayed at the level consistent with our neighboring states growth rates, we would have had an additional 46,000 state residents 16 and over. Our low unemployment rate is in part the product of workers who are choosing to leave the state for work. (http://www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/mcgee/Jobs_or_Unemployment.pdf)
3. Job numbers need context
CLAIM: “The 16,600 new jobs created in the month of October is the best monthly jobs gain since April of 1992 and the best October since at least 1990.” And the 45,100 new private sector jobs added October over October is statistically significant.”
It is interesting that the Governor chose to tout October jobs in December, after the newer November numbers had been released. The 12-month growth in November was nearly 13,000 jobs less than October’s 32,400 and trailed neighboring states. A classic example of cherry-picking.
4. “New businesses” that don’t actually exist.
CLAIM: “There has also been a net increase of over 43,000 new businesses.”
Governor Walker is referencing the number of newly registered “business entities”. However, many of these entities have no employees at all, and never will. According to Politifact, that is because the Governor’s numbers also include non-profits such as youth groups, recreational athletic leagues, and home associations. It also includes thousands of limited-liability companies only set up to function as holding companies, startups, and out-of-state companies that register as a placeholder in case they were to do business in Wisconsin in the future.
5. Chief Executive Magazine
CLAIM: Chief Executive Magazine today ranked Wisconsin the “12th Best State for Business” in its annual survey of CEOs, an increase of two spots over the 2014 ranking, and a significant increase since 2010, when the state ranked 41st.”
Business leaders were asked to grade states with which they are familiar on a variety of competitive metrics that CEOs themselves regard as critical. These include: 1) taxation and regulation; 2) quality of workforce; and 3) living environment. The tax and regulatory grade includes a measure of how CEOs grade a state’s attitude toward business, a key indicator. “
One of the State Advocate CEOs for Chief Executive.Net Magazine is none other than Diane Hendricks, Chairman of Hendricks Holding, Beloit, WI. Forbes Magazine estimated Hendricks’ March net worth at $2.8 billion. Hendricks and her husband, Kenneth, built ABC Supply. She became chairman of the company after her husband died in 2007. The company posts annual revenue of more than $4 billion.
She was also Scott Walker’s largest donor, and yet owed no state income tax in 2010.
In Summary, the rankings include “a measure of how CEOs grade a state’s attitude toward business, a key indicator.” In this case, how Diane Hendricks, Governor Walker’s largest donor perceives things to be in Wisconsin.
6. K-12 education: taking credit from decades of investment
CLAIMS: “Schools are doing better.”
“High school graduation rates are up again — now ranking third in the nation.”
“Reading/Math scores are up in fourth and eighth grades.”
“ACT scores are second best in the nation.”
Most 2015 Wisconsin high school graduates started school in 2000 or 2001. Fourth graders started school in 2008 or 2009. Eighth graders started school in 2004 or 2005. The point is that the achievement at any of these levels is not a snapshot of momentary success. It is the product of investments made in public education in our state over time.
Under Governor Walker and Republicans, K-12 GPR School Aids have lost more than $1 Billion ($1.05 Billion). Recent cuts in state education spending, no matter how damaging, take years to work their way through the system as students moved from grade to grade.
Wisconsin is just beginning to feel the effects of Act 10 as there are fewer teachers, fewer students enrolling in teaching programs and a reduction in education licensing.
7. The UW System: When less is actually less.
CLAIM: “For the first time in University of Wisconsin history, in-state tuition is frozen at all UW campuses for four years in a row. That makes college more affordable for our students and working families.”
The UW System has lost $795 million in state aid since Governor Walker became Governor. In the strongest national economy in a decade, Governor Walker and the Republican Legislature cut $250 million in the most recent budget from our UW system. These cuts will lead to fewer courses offered and longer graduation times. And the low morale is leading to high faculty turnover as talented professors leave for other states.
From WisDems Chair Martha Laning
Democrats were hoping to hear Governor Scott Walker outline a plan to work across the aisle to solve the challenges Wisconsinites face each day. Unfortunately, Gov. Walker gave an election year speech focused on spinning a failed agenda rubber-stamped by his Republican-controlled legislature instead of a plan to increase opportunity for citizens in every corner of our state.
Wisconsin Republicans have spent the last five years on an agenda that decreased family incomes and shrunk the middle class. Local schools are struggling to do more with less in the face of budget cuts, our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, and mass layoffs just hit a five-year high.
If Republicans are ready to listen to concerns of Wisconsin families instead of focusing on their self-interests, Democrats are ready and willing to help lead on an agenda focused on growth, innovation, and opportunity.
After a year of missed opportunities, it’s time to return to basic Wisconsin values and make sure that those who pay their fair share and play by the rules will have an opportunity to succeed and get ahead. Our state deserves an economy that works for everyone, not just millionaires and billionaires.
From Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee
Wisconsin is 32nd — dead last in the Midwest — in private-sector job growth over the past four years. It was reported recently that layoff notices in Wisconsin topped 10,000 in 2015, the highest single-year total since Governor Walker took office. In sharp contrast, the Democratic agenda features job creation, wage growth, and other efforts to rebuilding the middle class as our top priorities.
In his State of the State speech, our governor failed to mention the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), his privatization scheme, which has been plagued by outsourcing, corruption, and allegations of pay-to-play while failing to create jobs. Democrats have put forward a plan for a job creation agency that would be fully accountable and help entrepreneurs.
Tonight, Governor Walker spoke of his plan to address student debt, but it falls comically short of where our state needs it. Wisconsin is third-worst in the nation in student loan debt, yet Walker’s plan would provide relief to a mere 3% of Wisconsinites who need it. The Democratic plan allows people to refinance their student loans just like a mortgage or car payment, a common-sense plan supported by the vast majority of Wisconsinites.
Republicans have been actively tearing down our state’s public, higher education system, disregarding the many Wisconsinites who depend on it. This included massive cuts to our technical colleges and a total loss of $795 million in state aid to the University of Wisconsin System under Walker and Republicans.
It should be no surprise our governor is out of touch with Wisconsin’s needs. During his failed presidential campaign, he spent approximately 48 minutes per day doing state business. Still, he blamed his gubernatorial duties, which he was elected to do, for his campaign’s failure. Democrats know that we need to listen to our constituents and respond to their concerns all the time, not just when it’s politically convenient.
Governor Walker is not on Wisconsin’s side, so I am very concerned about the State of Our State.
From Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee
While Gov. Walker and Wisconsin Republicans claim there’s a Wisconsin ‘comeback,’ more and more Wisconsinites are falling further behind under their willful ignorance and neglectful watch.
The governor himself said that ‘we need to think more about the next generation than just about the next election.’ If that were true, we would have heard about the tragic epidemic of gun violence ravaging our communities. We would have heard how deep cuts have devastated our local public schools, and how too many students are drowning in debt due to our crushing student loan debt crisis. We would have heard about how families have been shattered by the lack of access to good paying jobs, so that they can put food on their tables and provide basic necessities for their loved ones.
We have serious problems to solve, and we need people serious about doing their jobs and serious solutions to fix them. I will continue to fight for a brighter future and better opportunities for families in Milwaukee and across the state. This means standing strong for our values and fighting for safe neighborhoods, healthy children, strong local public schools, real student loan debt relief, and opportunities for workers to provide for their families.
From Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison
During this entire legislative session, Governor Walker and legislative Republicans have shown that their priorities are protecting their own political careers, not the people of this state. Time and time again we’ve seen this Governor and this Legislature put themselves, their campaigns and their own jobs, first.
Since coming into power and following Governor Walker’s lead, legislative Republicans have cut more than $2 billion from our public schools, universities and technical schools. They expect our public schools to Book Fair and Bake Sale their way out of the black hole they have created for our state, and our children. Tonight we heard Governor Walker’s plan for Divide and Conquer 2.0 – taking health care options away from state employees to throw pennies at our public schools, instead of making the education investment our children need.
The vision outlined by Governor Walker tonight exemplifies a series of bad choices that continue to catapult Wisconsin’s families to lower wages, more student debt and fewer quality health care providers.”
It is not too late for Wisconsin. We are just one decision away from starting to turn this ship around. Accepting the federal Medicaid dollars provided a pathway to put more money into the classroom while reducing if not eliminating the funding cut to our higher education institutions. Despite my colleagues taking their marching orders from the special interests bankrolling their campaign coffers, we as legislators must continue to fight for the Wisconsin we all believe in, and protect the people’s backs, not our own.
From Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville
While he was running for President, Governor Walker focused on the priorities of Republican primary voters and wealthy donors. Now that he has dropped out of the race, it is time to focus on things that affect everyone in Wisconsin.
The Governor has vowed to restore a commitment to public education and the University of Wisconsin. After leaving thousands of students and families behind while pursuing the presidency, it is refreshing that Governor Walker finally recognizes that it is time to focus on what is good for Wisconsin.
Everyone in Wisconsin has been affected by the cuts to public education and the UW-System. We need to make sure that our workforce is prepared to fill the jobs that are currently available and that everyone is trained for the jobs of the future.
I wish we would have heard about are how we are going to fix our transportation budget and repair the crumbling roads and bridges throughout our state. This is a problem that is hurting every business, every community and every family in Wisconsin.
Kicking the can down the road while our highways and bridges are falling apart is a failure of Governor Walker’s leadership. It is time to bring people together and fix this problem for the future of our state. We cannot borrow our way out of this crisis and doing nothing only makes the situation worse.
I hope that Governor Walker can provide the leadership needed to focus on the issues that affect everyone in Wisconsin and not just the fringe group of primary voters and special interests.
From Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit
I am disappointed in Governor Walker’s State of the State address this evening. Wisconsin is in need of bold action for students, workers, and middle class families, but the Governor and legislative Republicans seem content to merely offer Band-Aids that are too little and too late for the challenges we face.
Student debt is a very real problem facing millions of Wisconsin residents, including senior citizens who are still paying off student loans decades after graduating from college. But Gov. Walker’s student debt plan would help only a tiny fraction of student borrowers. However, the Democratic plan provides real relief and allows people to refinance their student loans just like a mortgage or car payment. Allowing refinancing of student loans will help lower interest rates, level the playing field, and give more Wisconsin residents the opportunity to buy a car, own a home, and start a family.
Additionally, despite 10,000 layoff notices given out in Wisconsin last year, Gov. Walker and Republicans still have taken no significant actions to promote job growth in our state or make meaningful reforms to WEDC, our struggling economic development agency. As these layoffs occur and our economy progresses in the 21st century, the importance of retraining for laid off workers and preparing tomorrow’s workforce continues to grow.
Instead of bolstering our future workforce, Republicans have done serious harm to education in our state, handing down massive cuts to our public schools and technical colleges, and a $250 million cut to our world-class university system in their latest budget. If Republicans are serious about workforce development and growing our economy, they should restore these cuts and fully fund our public schools from kindergarten through college.
Wisconsin Democrats are ready to lead and will continue to demand action for the middle class and Wisconsin communities. We know we need better roads, stronger schools, more economic opportunity and real relief for all student loan borrowers. We know we need to expand access to healthcare, raise the minimum wage, make childcare affordable, and ensure retirement security for all workers. Unfortunately, Gov. Walker’s anemic plans for Wisconsin are too little and too late, and simply a distraction from the Republican inaction on these critical issues.
From Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee
Governor Walker is out of touch with the everyday needs of Wisconsin families. It is no surprise that while he was busy campaigning across the nation, he forgot about the real concerns of families at home. Wisconsin families are facing increased costs in childcare, layoffs from good-paying jobs and the daunting costs of student loans. Our children are suffering from the historic budget cuts to public education, and our parents are facing rising costs of healthcare due to the Governor’s failure to accept the federal funds for Badgercare. Rather than prioritizing the needs of the wealthy, we need to invest in an economic plan that will work for all Wisconsin families.
Senate Democrats drafted the Badger Blueprint because we know a strong Wisconsin starts with a comprehensive plan to strengthen and raise the standard of living for families across our state. From proven solutions to grow our economy as well as new ideas to increase opportunities for workers, the Blueprint shows that Senate Democrats are committed to helping all individuals succeed.
After years of scandals at Gov. Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), a new investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that the troubled agency exceeded its authority and improperly awarded more than $21 million in taxpayer funding to businesses and Gov. Walker campaign contributors.
In light of this latest report, I demand immediate Republican action to reign in this rogue agency.
Four and a half years of failure and corruption is enough. Republicans can’t continue to turn a blind eye while their unaccountable WEDC cheats hardworking taxpayers out of millions of dollars. With a shrinking middle class, declining family wages and Wisconsin layoffs at a five-year high, it’s time to restore accountability and put an end to the WEDC’s history of corruption.
Democrats have put forward numerous proposals to reign in the WEDC, increase accountability and improve economic development. Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, and Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, have authored legislation to overhaul WEDC and improve taxpayer transparency. Additionally, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, have authored legislation to crack down on fraud and corruption at the agency.
Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, is the Senate Democratic Leader.
Just nine days into the school year, a Milwaukee voucher school abruptly shut down, drawing renewed criticism from opponents of efforts to privatize Wisconsin’s K–12 public school system.
Daughters of the Father Christian Academy, 1877 N. 24th Place, says it closed voluntarily, but the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction had cited it for multiple problems and tried to remove it from the state’s Parental Choice Program over the summer. The school maintains a website that still features an enrollment tab.
Elsewhere on the Web, the academy’s enrollment is listed as 240 students. Now those students’ parents are scrambling for a place to enroll their kids.
The DPI did not return phone messages seeking information about the closure.
By most measures, the school appeared doomed from the start. It managed to achieve accreditation, beginning in the 2007–08 school year, despite a number of red flags that Fox 6 news uncovered during an investigation in May. Those included the revelation that school founder Bishop Doris Pinkney had filed for bankruptcy three times since 1995 and did not have a teaching credential. The school’s application was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.
Fox 6 launched the probe after parents of students at the academy complained the school abruptly ceased providing bus service to students in middle of the last academic year due to financial mismanagement. Pinkney acknowledged to a bankruptcy court that she was earning $132,000 annually.
In 2011, a child care center that Pinkney ran was shuttered for “substantial and repeat violations of licensing rules,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Families and Children.
A study published in January by the Wisconsin State Journal concluded that voucher school closings are common in the state. Eleven schools participating in the voucher program were removed within a year of opening due to poor educational standards — at a $4.1 million cost to taxpayers.
The WSJ article appeared just after Milwaukee’s Travis Technology High School was terminated for failing to meet state requirements during the winter break of the 2014–15 school year.
The shutdown of Daughters of the Father Christian Academy brought the number of terminated voucher schools in the state to 57 since 2003, according to a just-released report by the DPI. Those schools have cost Wisconsin taxpayers $176 million.
News of the academy’s closing came one week after Republican legislators appeared poised to fast-track an expansion of Gov. Scott Walker’s private school voucher program. In the 2015–17 biennial budget, Republicans lifted a cap on the number of voucher schools permitted to operate in the state by 1 percent annually. But on Sept. 4, Republicans introduced a proposal — Senate Bill 250 — that would exempt certain school districts from abiding by that limitation, allowing voucher schools to expand more rapidly.
“Rather than selling out Wisconsin students to protect the special interests behind Gov. Walker’s presidential campaign, we need action now to prevent further cases of voucher fraud,” Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a news release issued prior to Walker’s suspension of his campaign.
By special interests, Shilling was referring to the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and other right-wing groups that put the creation of private, for-profit schools at the top of their political agenda. In recent years, wealthy and mostly out-of-state pro-voucher groups and organizations have spent more than $7.5 million on campaign contributions for Walker and Wisconsin Republicans, as well as on pro-voucher advertising and lobbying efforts in the state, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. As the law currently stands, even without taking the potential fiscal impact of SB 250 into consideration, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature is on track to spend $1.2 billion on private schools between 2011 and 2017.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign characterized that expenditure as a 15,600 percent return on the $7.5 million “investment” of voucher school supporters.
Since Republicans took over state government, voucher school funding has risen about 77 percent, while funding for K–12 public schools has increased 11 percent, according to a memo that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau prepared at Schilling’s request.
There were 29,609 students in the voucher program during the last academic school year, according to the DPI. That’s an increase of 26 percent from the the 2011–12 academic year.
Voucher payments are $7,210 for students in K–8 grades and $7,856 for high school students. Those payments represent about $200 million in school voucher funding that would otherwise have gone into the public school system.
“With declining family wages, a shrinking middle class and statewide teacher shortages, we need to stop taking money away from Wisconsin’s children and start investing in quality public schools,” Shilling said.
Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, countered that total spending on voucher schools is less than 5 percent of all money spent on schools in the state. He accused voucher school opponents of not coming forward with new ideas or reforms to improve K–12 education, but rather complaining about funding.
In January, state Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, introduced Senate Bill 3, which would set operating and academic standards for voucher schools. Those schools currently operate without the accountability required of public schools.
SB 3 would mandate voucher schools hire licensed teachers, conduct staff background checks, meet state graduation standards and be located in Wisconsin. But the Legislature’s Republican majority has kept the bill bottled up in committees and GOP leadership is unlikely to release it for a vote.
“The recent news reports show a need for taxpayer-funded voucher schools to be held to the same standards as public schools,” Harris Dodd said in a news release. “I introduced Senate Bill 3 because I believe that all children should receive a quality and reliable education. By holding voucher schools accountable, this bill would ensure that students are being taught by qualified, licensed teachers and that precious taxpayer dollars are not being wasted on schools who shut their doors mid-way through the year.
“As a state, we need to improve public oversight, transparency, and student safety in these schools, who are receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer money.”
As he traveled the country campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, Walker touted Wisconsin’s leadership in providing school choice through the voucher program. But the subject did not resonate with the majority of voters. In fact, most polls show voters prefer public schools over voucher schools.
Critics contend that voucher schools are inherently flawed. For one thing, 85 percent of Milwaukee’s voucher schools over the past 30 years have been religious schools, which critics say violates the Constitution’s guaranteed separation of church and state.
Another thing that riles voucher opponents is some schools eligible for vouchers are expensive private institutions whose students’ parents can afford to pay — and in the past were paying — tuition out of their own pockets. Critics charge that those schools are diverting money from underfunded public schools.
“In Wisconsin, approximately 79 percent of the students who received a taxpayer-subsidized voucher in 2013 were already attending private schools,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, wrote in an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This means taxpayer dollars are not being used to advance public education, but instead are being used to subsidize the education of a small number of students already enrolled in private schools at the expense of students in public schools in an attempt to further privatize education.”
An additional problem with voucher schools is many have failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities. In 2013, the federal government wrote the DPI that it must do more to enforce requirements under the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.
The letter from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division contained a warning: “The United States reserves its right to pursue enforcement through other means.”
Voucher supporters claim that private schools provide a superior academic environment for students, particularly students from failing public schools. But data comparing the graduation rates and academic proficiencies of students attending public schools with those in voucher schools are inconsistent at best. It appears that while some voucher schools have outperformed public schools, many others have produced poor results and even turned out to be unreliable scam operations.
While the jury is apparently still out on the effectiveness of voucher schools, they continue to drain public education dollars at a time when the state suffers from a teacher shortage due to Walker’s Act 10. Considered the governor’s signature legislation, Act 10 took away teachers’ rights to bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. In response, thousands of teachers either retired or left the state.
Protests staged by teachers and other public employees over Act 10 resulted in the demonization of the profession by tea party Republicans. That has discouraged college students in Wisconsin from choosing to major in education, which could haunt the state for years to come.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will have to plug a roughly $280 million budget shortfall by the end of June, and the state faces a two-year deficit that could be as large as $2 billion, based on new estimates released from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
When Walker took office in 2011, the state faced a roughly $3 billion budget shortfall, based on agency requests. Walker declared that the state was “bankrupt” then, an assertion that was supported by the media.
Somehow, there’s no mention of “bankruptcy” in the right-wing media this time around.
Walker used the 2011 deficit as an excuse to dismantle public unions, an action that was high on the agenda of right-wing groups such as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. His Act 10 forced public workers to pay more for their health care and pension benefits and ended nearly all their collective bargaining rights. He made deeper cuts to education than any other governor in the nation, including cuts to public schools, the University of Wisconsin and technical colleges. He also cut the state workforce, taking millions of dollars in income out of the state’s economy.
Over his first term, Walker turned down hundreds of millions of federal dollars for expanding Medicaid, building high-speed rail and expanding high-speed Internet service in the state. Those were among the decisions that put the state on the slowest track in the region for job creation.
But Walker’s Act 10 brought the largest demonstrations to Madison in decades, making him an instant sensation with the tea party acolytes Fox News. Now Walker is using his fame to mount an exploratory campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
The governor has spent a great deal of time since his re-election pulling together his presidential campaign, visiting other states and raising funds. The latest budget figures were released just a day before Walker joined other GOP presidential hopefuls at separate events in Iowa and California. Democrats renewed their criticism that Walker is distracted by his political ambitions and instead should be focused on fixing the state’s budget problem.
“The Scott Walker claiming that he cut taxes and balanced the budget faces a different reality at home,” said WisDems communication director Melissa Baldauff in a press release. “While Walker is campaigning in Iowa and promising caucus voters he’ll be back there soon and often, Wisconsin is facing a $2.2 billion budget deficit for the next biennium that is well on its way to $3 billion and higher. Worse, the state is expected to end the current fiscal year with a $283 million shortfall.”
Baldauff continued: “Instead of bragging to Iowans about how he busted unions with an unnecessary budget repair bill in 2011, Walker needs to start talking to his Republican Legislature about a budget repair bill right now to address this staggering deficit. The $283 million shortfall for this year is more than three times the $79 million threshold in state law to trigger a budget repair and is more than double the amount of the deficit Walker used as justification to pass his contentious Act 10 legislation. Wisconsinites need to start hearing real, serious solutions from Scott Walker about how he will close this deficit without gutting critical services or raising taxes on the middle class.”
Walker will not release an emergency budget plan to balance the $283 million shortfall for the year that ends June 30, his spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email to The Associated Press. The state constitution requires the budget to be balanced, meaning that savings will have to be found over the next five months to make up the deficit.
Walker’s deficit will likely spur deep cuts across state government, which would please conservatives, but make it difficult for him to follow through on additional promised tax cuts. Walker and Republican legislative leaders have stressed for weeks that difficult decisions lie ahead.
Wisconsin’s two-year shortfall hits about $2 billion when state agency requests — which will certainly not be filled in full by Walker or the Legislature — are taken into account. The budget will be about $650 million short by mid-2017 just to continue spending at current levels.
Walker is set to release his roughly $68 billion, two-year budget on Feb. 3 and the Legislature will make changes to it over the next several months.
Co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee issued a statement attributing the budget woes to the $2 billion in tax cuts passed during Walker’s first term, which they supported. Large cuts went to the wealthiest Wisconsinites, while cuts for the middle class were minimal and taxes for some poor residents increased under their plan.
The Associated Press contributed.
Powdered alcohol may be banned in Wisconsin before the product, known as Palcohol, ever hits store shelves.
Following the lead of eight other state legislatures, Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said he hopes to enact a ban before Palcohol becomes available this spring.
“The potential for abuse outweighs quite heavily the need for that type of product,” Carpenter said. “It would just make life a lot less complicated if we just didn’t go there.”
Carpenter said he will seek co-sponsorship from Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Republican from Wauwatosa. Vukmir on said she had not seen a draft of the bill as of Jan. 21.
Mark Phillips, the owner of the Arizona-based company Palcohol, said on the company’s website that he created the product to avoid lugging liquor bottles on hiking trips. The 1-ounce powder packets can be stirred into water to make one shot of vodka or rum, or a serving of one of four different cocktails, the website says.
Carpenter said people would likely snort the powder to try to achieve an instant high, could sneak the substance into sporting events or high school classrooms, or could mistake the powder for something else and ingest it accidentally.
Carpenter said he hopes to avoid the confusion that came when synthetic hallucinogenic drugs referred to as bath salts were first allowed by the state if they were labeled “not for human consumption,” then outlawed in 2011. He hopes to act proactively to ban Palcohol before Wisconsinites have the chance to abuse it.
Tavern League of Wisconsin executive director Pete Madland said the organization does not see a need for Palcohol and is supportive of the ban.
“I don’t see the upside to it,” Madland said. “I see a big downside.”
Lynne Barbour, a spokeswoman for Palcohol, said lawmakers fail to see the benefits of Palcohol. She said if properly regulated, Palcohol would not be abused. The product’s website says Palcohol could be used on airplanes to reduce liquid weight and maltodextrin — the powder used to absorb alcohol —could be used to make lightweight medicine.
“It confounds us and makes us lose faith in the legislative process that states are banning a product they know nothing about and don’t seek to learn about it before making their decisions,” Barbour said.
Democratic Sen. Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse, and Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, of Kenosha, said the bill allows a discussion of the risks associated with powdered alcohol.
Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, did not respond to a request for comment.
Kayla Leibl, a medical student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said lawmakers should permit Palcohol sales.
“The dangers of Palcohol are hardly different than those of traditional liquid alcohol … regardless of physical form, alcohol will be abused,” Leibl said. “I don’t see a problem with marketing it.”
Chris Rink, 25, of Madison, said banning powdered alcohol could lead to a black market if the product gained enough demand. But he said he would not seek it out if it was sold in Wisconsin.
“I vastly prefer beer over other types of alcoholic beverages and I do not think beer would translate very well into a powdered format,” Rink said.
The bill was expected to be heard by the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services this month.