October 6, 2011

Special session bills serve special interests

Democrats reacted sharply to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to call the Legislature into special session to take up a slate of measures meant to put Wisconsin “back to work.”

Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, the Assembly’s minority leader, told reporters on Sept. 28 that the governor’s list included a few worthy bills, backed by Democrats. But he pegged most as “payoffs to special interests” that do nothing to create jobs.

According to an email sent by Barca’s office to reporters, 16 of the roughly two dozen measures “appear to qualify as special interest giveaways.” His staff says this list is tentative, as many of the measures have not yet been introduced.

Among the “giveaways” is AB 220, a mainly GOP-sponsored bill to provide a tax credit for companies that offer workplace wellness programs. Barca says it’s backed by the insurance and health care industries and a variety of business groups.

He’s right. Among the more than 20 groups registered in favor of this bill are several insurance companies and the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. But so are the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the American Heart Association. There are no registered opponents.

“We support policies that help get physical activity into people’s lives,” explains Nicole Hudzinski, a Wisconsin lobbyist for the heart association. She says the tax credit will help make these programs more affordable, a common sticking point. The estimated cost to the state would be about $5 million a year.

Barca has said he may deem this bill worthy of support, but doesn’t think it belongs in a special session on jobs. Hudzinski makes this connection, saying healthier employees means lower insurance premiums, “leaving businesses with more money to expand and hire more workers.”

Meanwhile, Barca’s list of “giveaways” does not include AB 145 (SB 102), a bill that has stirred deep division among interest groups. It authorizes the Public Service Commission to approve temporary electric rates to individual businesses to promote economic development.

Several industry groups and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce are registered in favor; the Citizens Utility Board and Clean Wisconsin are among those opposed. The biggest backer, accounting for more than half the 972 hours of total lobbying on the bill reported in the first half of 2011, is Alliant Energy.

“It really is an economic development bill,” says Alliant lobbyist Bill Jordahl, noting that it would let utilities woo new industrial customers and keep existing ones by offering lower electric rates for up to five years. He argues that having these businesses as customers benefits other ratepayers, beyond what it costs them to subsidize the lower rates.

The bill is among the rarest of birds in that it qualifies as bipartisan. Sen Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, has signed on as a cosponsor, along with a host of Republicans. Barca’s staff says the case could be made that this bill does protect jobs, which is why it didn’t make the list.

Some other GOP-backed legislation was not flagged by Barca as overtly catering to special interests, but his list does not include any of the measures for which Democrats were the leading sponsors. Among these is SB 171, which would exempt from taxation certain employer-paid fringe benefits for mass transit expenses, at an estimated cost to the state of $1.2 million a year.

The bill is backed by the Sierra Club and Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Barca’s staff says he feels the bill may offer a tangible benefit to employees but does not necessarily create jobs and should probably be considered in regular session. It did not make the list because it has not generated much in the way of “special interest traction.”

Barca and others are right that the link between the proposed legislation and job creation is often tenuous. Several GOP-backed measures deal with the allowable length and weight of trucks on state highways. Others would limit interest rates and attorneys’ fees on civil judgments or make it harder to sue the manufacturers of medical devices.

But it does seem that a “special interest giveaway” is what the Democrats call any bill that does not favor their own special interests.