State Views: Sen. Ron Johnson's mail votes anger crucial Wisconsin industry

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, February 16, 2014

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is in the political doghouse of Wisconsin's largest industry.

At issue are Johnson's tea-party rhetoric and committee votes on postal-reform legislation. Postal votes are a vital issue for the multifaceted mailing industry, which accounts for more than $26 billion in annual economic activity and employs more than 180,000 Wisconsin residents.

The industry warns that ever-increasing mail rates will become a disincentive that will lead to companies finding other ways to communicate with their customers. The industry had supported an amendment advanced by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., that would have retained the existing power of the Postal Regulatory Commission and kept the latest increase as a “temporary” measure.

Johnson criticized the Baldwin amendment at a session of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, saying higher rates “could put jobs at risk,” but added, “My job is to protect the American taxpayer.”

He added: “…We cannot continue down this path of the postal system potentially being on the hook or making the American taxpayer being on the hook for tens of millions of dollars over the next 10 years if we do nothing.”

Wisconsin's mailing and publishing industry quickly issued a sharp rebuke to Johnson. It issued a public letter signed by top paper and mailing industry executives and officials at 52 newspapers. It noted the mailing industry provides about 90 percent of Postal Service revenue.

“We are confused by your taxpayer statement, considering the fact the Postal Service is funded solely by revenue from postage, most of it paid by mailing customers like us. No taxpayer dollars are used to fund the Postal Service,” the industry letter said.

“The real threat to the American taxpayer is allowing the Postal Service to price mailing out of the market, causing steep declines in mail volume that will further destabilize the Postal Service financially and lead to a taxpayer bailout,” the industry letter continued.

“Postal reform is critical, but only if it accomplishes the goal of encouraging customers to use the Postal Service, which in turn will keep business costs reasonable and protect Wisconsin jobs,” the letter said as the committee prepared for a decision.

“Wisconsin's businesses and hardworking citizens who rely on the Postal Service are depending on you. We ask that you join your fellow senator from Wisconsin and allow the Postal Service to right-size, innovate, reform health care costs and create a postal system which reflects the 21st century,” it concluded.

Baldwin's plan never got a chance. The committee chair offered a plan that advanced to the floor of the U.S. Senate and that severely limits the power of the Postal Regulatory Commission. Joel Quadracci, chief executive of the printing-industry giant QuadGraphics, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the industry was “disappointed” in the committee's actions.

“It will result in reduced mail volumes and further acerbate the Postal Service's financial trouble,” Quadracci said.

Johnson's response to the industry letter suggested he hadn't changed his emphasis on the taxpayer. “The Postal Service is on a crash course. If it is not fixed, it will need a taxpayer-funded bailout,” he said.

There are many elements of the industry, including small, medium and large firms. It includes paper manufacturers, publishers, marketers, catalogers, magazines and newspapers. In Wisconsin, it means a lot of jobs.

Jobs are among the biggest political issues in Wisconsin's 2014 election year. Gov. Scott Walker is going to have a tough time keeping his 2010 promise of 250,000 more jobs. The Republican Party has tried to shift the debate, saying Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has no plan at all.

There clearly is a difference between Wisconsin's two senators—one a Republican; the other a Democrat. Each put a different stamp on the mail issue.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Contact him by email at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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