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Special session shows early signs of bipartisanship

By   /   October 11, 2011  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — In an era of intensifying partisanship, divisive rhetoric and political stalemates, Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans sometimes do agree.

Where they agree, at least in principle, if not in direction, is that Wisconsin’s economy needs to create more jobs.

“You would think that both parties would be strongly concerned about jobs in Wisconsin,”  University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim said.

Gov. Scott Walker pledged bipartisanship in September when he announced plans for a special session on job creation.

His agenda includes several bills offered by Democratic lawmakers.

And while Democrats have met Walker’s conciliatory tone with skepticism, there were reminders Tuesday that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can, on occasion, find commonality.

“In these challenging times, we should make every effort to minimize tax burden,” state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said to the Joint Survey Committee on Tax Exemptions.

Wanggaard supported a bill that, he said, corrects an error in the tax code only Wisconsinites face. Employers are required to provide health coverage for employees’ adult children up to the age of 26, according to state law.

The value of that coverage is exempt from federal taxes and state taxes in 49 states.

Unless Wisconsin follows suit, employers will have to start determining the value of that specific benefit to about 16,000 households statewide.

That would be an “administrative nightmare,” Wanggaard said, because no specific guideline exists to determine the benefit’s value.

Plus, an additional tax burden would be placed on those employees, he said.

The legislation, which has bipartisan support, passed the committee unanimously.

Lawmakers in the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business later discussed two Democratic-backed bills that Walker included in the special session agenda, including one that would allow businesses to get tax credits up front as equity for further financing.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said in an email to Wisconsin Reporter that the governor is hoping for bipartisan support on a number of bills. 

“As the governor has said, these jobs aren’t Republican or (Democratic) jobs, they are Wisconsin jobs,” Werwie said.

Critics question the sincerity of Walker’s commitment to bipartisanship. Democrats say the governor who led the effort to curb collective bargaining for public employees and locked them out of budget reform measures will have to prove his willingness to compromise.

“We, Democrats, appreciate the fact that Gov. Walker has included some Democratic jobs bills on his list,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said Sept. 29 in his weekly radio address.

However, “using job creation and bipartisanship as a cover to advance an agenda that rewards Republican special interests at the expense of Wisconsin’s struggling families is an abuse of power,” Barca said.

Skeptics also noted that Walker is facing planned recall efforts, and wonder whether his new conciliatory tone is aimed at convincing middle-of-the-road voters to keep him in office.

Republicans have countered that politics should take a back seat to getting Wisconsin back to work.
“We hope there will be a great deal (of bipartisanship),” Andrew Welhouse, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said in an email. “We have already done more than the Democrats in charge of the Senate did last session.”
“It has been disappointing that every offer of bipartisanship has been slapped away immediately, and it’s telling that the Democrats are focused much more on recalls and the next elections than they are on improving the economy and creating jobs,” Welhouse said.
While lawmakers may agree on smaller bills, like the health-care insurance exemption, that doesn’t mean they will have a consensus on more contentious issues, such as streamlining the permitting process for mining and strengthening the state’s venture capital program.
In addition, Heim, the political scientist, said people may find it difficult to forget the intense partisanship of this year.
“It’s gotten to a very personal level,” he said. “Both sides said things about each other that make it very difficult to work with each other.”