By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Wisconsinites tired of elections and campaign ads probably will bid a welcome adieu to 2012, the year of seemingly endless political campaigns and elections.
It’s easy to forget, however, in the shadow of all-consuming elections, everything else that happened this year.
And several issues – voter ID, Act 10 among them – remain unresolved. So, before attention fully turns to 2013, here’s a quick retrospective on what made the most headlines in 2012, and where those issues stand today.
Our Top 10 list of most important political stories, for Wisconsin, of 2012:
10. Military ballots and clerk problems – Oy vey. It’s been a tough year all around for Wisconsin’s election clerks. Wisconsin has what may be the most decentralized election systems, handled almost completely by local election clerks, with limited oversight by the Government Accountability Board. Dozens of the state’s 1,851 municipal clerks missed the federal deadline for getting out ballots to military voters before the April election, prompting a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Senate recall election highlighted other potential problems, particularly in Racine. The DOJ and Wisconsin reached an agreement on the lawsuit that required, in part, progress reports for future elections. The GAB launched an education program this year aimed in part at getting clerks up-to-speed on current law and requirements, efforts that seem to have paid off.
9. Unemployment numbers – With the slow-to-recover economy tops on voters mind in this, an important election year, it’s little wonder that the release of unemployment data prompted monthly finger-pointing and credit-taking from both sides of the aisle, with the minority party chiding the majority party’s policies every time unemployment rose, and the majority party and incumbents taking credit whenever the rate dropped. Still unresolved? Whether there’s a more accurate way to measure unemployment.
Keith Hall, the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the BLS’ method of calculating unemployment contains “real problems. … That doesn’t mean, though, that there’s an easy way to fix it.” The latest quarterly data, which is based on survey of about 96 percent of Wisconsin employers, shows that Wisconsin’s private sector added 35,379 from June 2011 to June 2012.
8. Mining – Just last spring, the mining issue appeared pretty dead in Wisconsin. Unable to sway state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, from siding with Democrats opposing a bill easing mining regulations, Senate Republicans dropped the legislation last March. Gogebic Taconite immediately announced that it was backing off plans for an iron mine straddling Iron and Ashland counties in northern Wisconsin. But the November elections increased the GOP’s Senate majority, meaning Schultz might not be an issue when the Legislature returns in January, and Gov. Scott Walker says he wants a mining bill on his desk ASAP.
7. Health care ruling – Love it or hate it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed “Obamacare” by critics, is law. And the November elections, which gave Obama a second term and kept a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, all but ensure that the ACA will be implemented. Now it’s just a matter of “how.”
Walker already has said that Wisconsin will not run its own health care exchange, which essentially is an online marketplace for health insurance. The next decision? Whether Wisconsin will expand Medicaid. Most of the ACA’s provisions take effect in 2014, so this is an issue Wisconsin, and the country, will be discussing for years to come.
6. John Doe investigation – About all that’s known about the John Doe investigation into the actions of people who worked for Walker while he was Milwaukee County executive is this: So far, the investigation has netted five convictions with a sixth trial scheduled for January, it’s ongoing and Walker has not been accused of doing anything wrong. In November, during a sentencing hearing for one of Walker’s former aides, Kelly M. Rindfleisch, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf said it was clear that top Walker campaign officials influenced county strategy, though he did not say any of the activity was illegal, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
5. Act 10 lawsuits and effects – Much like voter ID, Act 10 – which, as most people probably know by now, made substantial changes to collective bargaining for most public employees who belong to public unions – is in limbo. “Everyone knows this is going to the Supreme Court — don’t they?” University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim asked in October, after Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas on refused to stay a Sept. 14 decision in which he ruled that parts of Act 10 were unconstitutional.
Act 10 definitely was controversial, but municipalities have saved money as a result of the changes. Still, others – primarily Madison – have taken advantage of Colas’ ruling to approve new union contracts. This is, as they say, to be continued …
4. Voter ID – The slow grind of the judicial process has stalled implementation of the state’s law requiring voters to present a photo ID before they’re given a ballot. Walker signed the measure in May 2011, and voters in Februrary’s spring primary for nonpartisan elections were required to show a photo ID. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the law, and since February, two judges have placed injunctions on the law so that it cannot be implemented. The state Supreme Court decided in September not to take up the issue directly, deferring to the stand appeals process. And thus, Wisconsin, you wait.
3. Wisconsin as national news – Wisconsin already was basking in – for some, tolerating – the national spotlight prior to 2012, thanks to Walker’s high profile in the wake of the collective bargaining changes, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-1st District, chairing the House Budget Committee and former Wisconsin Republican Party chair Reince Priebus taking charge of the Republican National Committee. But then, last August, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate, and this fall, Wisconsin ended up being one of a handful of states that Romney believed he could win on his way to the presidency. With talk already strong that Ryan and Walker, if not Priebus, might be interested in running for president in 2016, Wisconsinites who shun the spotlight might want to consider moving to another state.
2. November election – After a solid trouncing in the 2010 elections, Wisconsin Democrats stormed back this year, giving President Barack Obama a solid win here on his way to a second term and choosing one of the most liberal members of Congress, Tammy Baldwin, over former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. Still, the GOP once again will control the legislative agenda, with majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and Republican Walker in the governor’s office. So time alone will tell whether Wisconsinites’ lives in 2013 will be more heavily shaped by national Democrats or state-level Republicans in office.
1. Recall elections – In retrospect, the recall elections (including last year’s) didn’t really change all that much. But the net effect belies the amount of the recall-related time, energy and money effect on Wisconsin this year. On June 5, Walker became the first governor in the nation to survive a recall election, besting Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the second time in two years. Democrats seized control of the state Senate after a recount of the Senate District 21 vote showed Democrat John Lehman had beat incumbent Republican Van Wanggaard. But the GOP promptly regained, even padded to, its Senate majority in November. None of that, however, means the recall races were cheap. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported candidates, political parties and interest groups spent $137.6 million on the recalls of 2011 and 20122, and the Government Accountability Board said taxpayers paid $13.5 million to pay for the 2012 recall elections alone.
Contact Adshead at [email protected]