Walters: New legislators' bills lay re-election groundwork

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Monday, August 26, 2013

They run for the Legislature to change the world or overturn what they say are bad decisions made by those in office. But what bills have first-term Wisconsin legislators introduced?

The question was triggered by the new push of Rep. Paul Tittl, R-Manitowoc, to raise the 65-mph speed limit on Interstates and major highways to 70 mph. It would speed up the 22-minute average commute to work in Wisconsin, which is the only Midwest state stuck at 65 mph, Tittl added.

Although the Senate leader quickly said bumping the top speed to 70 mph is not on his “to do” list, Tittl's proposal made front-page news across Wisconsin. It also wrote the first line of his 2014 re-election campaign ads: “Paul Tittl thinks you should be able to drive 70.”

Traditional Capitol wisdom holds that new legislators are most vulnerable at the ends of their first terms and, if they win second terms, they usually can hold their seats as long as they want.

For that reason, legislative leaders often assign their first-term lawmakers popular, high-profile issues—even if they have no chance of becoming law soon.

First-term Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, for example, got to be chief Senate sponsor of the bill that rewrote mining regulations to invite Gogebic Taconite's expected application for a giant open-pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties.

And who did leaders assign as the Senate's second sponsor of the pro-mining bill? First-term Sen. Richard Gudex, R-Fond du Lac.

Records show that Gudex is chief sponsor of bills for a sales tax “holiday” in August and November, to give a tax break to teachers who buy classroom supplies with their own money, to strengthen the ability of local government officials to prosecute those found to possess more than 25 grams of marijuana, and to provide incentives to report fraud to state hotlines.

Of all first-term legislators, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, passed the most controversial bill so far this session.

A former Milwaukee County supervisor, Sanfelippo got the full Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive, to cut the pay, staff and power of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Sanfelippo will often remind voters of that next year, when he seeks re-election.

Of the 99 Assembly members, 26 are serving their first terms. Records show some of the first bills they introduced this year included:

-- Republican Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam pushed a bill—now law—saying a Wisconsin soldier killed in action owes no state income taxes.

-- Democratic Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire wants a two-year “cooling off” period before ex-legislators can lobby.

-- Republican Rep. John Spiros of Marshfield wants to eliminate the estate tax.

-- Democratic Rep. Mandy Wright of Wausau wants to create a Redistricting Advisory Commission, which would draw new boundaries for congressional and legislative seats every 10 years. Now, the party that controls the Capitol redraws those lines with new census numbers.

-- Republican Rep. David Murphy of Greenville is lead Assembly sponsor of the controversial bill that would allow farmers who register with a state agency and meet specific standards to sell raw milk.

-- Democratic Rep. Daniel Riemer of Milwaukee wants to remove limits enacted two years ago on the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides tax breaks for low-income workers.

-- Republican Rep. Michael Schraa of Oshkosh sponsored a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the jobs of secretary of state and state treasurer.

-- Democratic Rep. Debra Kolste of Janesville wants to expand legal protections under the Volunteer Health Care Provider program to nurse aides, EMTs, psychologists, social workers, therapists, counselors and dental assistants.

-- Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent of Madison wants to make it a misdemeanor crime to carry a gun in the Capitol, except for on-duty law officers.

-- Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander wants officials to be able to seize the vehicle and other property used by those guilty of child enticement.

-- Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee wants new penalties for anyone who harasses or endangers on-the-job firefighters, police officers and EMTs. He also wants to create two sets of court records—one for the general public and a separate database for police, law enforcement agencies, journalists and related professionals.

-- Republican Rep. John Jagler of Watertown got the Assembly to double penalties for speeding or reckless driving near garbage collectors or sanitation workers.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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