Democrats revive Senate finance panel
The eight-member Senate Finance Committee, which hasn’t met since 2008, will be the laboratory for Democratic ideas and campaign themes before Nov. 6 elections.
On July 17, control of the Senate flipped from Republicans to Democrats—at least until Nov. 6. Democrats have a 17-to-16 margin, although Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen said last week he is close to becoming an independent.
That power shift made Milwaukee Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor co-chairwoman of the 16-member Joint Finance Committee, a 101-year-old Wisconsin institution. She is the first Milwaukee legislator to co-chair the Joint Finance Committee in 11 years.
The Joint Finance Committee has been called the most powerful legislative panel in the nation because it oversees spending and taxation. In other states, four separate committees—two in each house—deal with those issues.
Republicans control the eight Assembly members of the Joint Finance Committee, so its 16-member roster is a partisan tie: Six Democratic and two Republican senators, and six Republican and two Democratic Assembly members.
The full Joint Finance Committee must meet to pay bills between now and January, and to formally approve the year-end balance sheet that officially starts planning for the 2013-15 budget.
In a WisconsinEye interview last week, Taylor said she still hopes to work with Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Republicans on job creation, health care and drought-related issues this fall.
But Taylor also plans to convene the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans won’t let the full Finance Committee do anything more than pay bills in the next three months.
Democrats want to ask Walker appointees at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation about tax incentives offered, and then rescinded, to information systems company Skyward. Republicans say the deal never went through, so there is nothing for Democrats to probe.
Democrats also insist that Wisconsin should set up health care exchanges mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act, but Walker says state government won’t act until after the presidential election.
The Senate Finance Committee is also expected to endorse a one-time appropriation to speed the training of workers for high-demand jobs such as welding.
If Republicans won’t let the full Finance Committee work on these issues, Taylor said, “I’ll call them on the carpet.”
“If it means that we have to (convene the Senate Finance Committee) so we can say, ‘This is what the agenda is for Democrats—that we’re putting Wisconsinites first and we’re trying not to be divisive and so on and so forth—but these are issues that we believe should go forth,’ then I’ll do that.”
One thing Taylor said she does not expect the Senate Finance Committee to consider: Repeal of the controversial “Act 10” changes, passed last year, that all but eliminated collective bargaining for all public employees except firefighters and police officers.
Even though the Legislature is not in session, the Joint Finance Committee—and the Senate Finance Committee as a subset of it—can meet, hold public hearings statewide and vote on specific proposals, Taylor added.
But unless a special session is called—something Walker and Republicans have called unlikely—any recommendations of the Senate Finance Committee have no chance of becoming law. That means the panel’s actions will be more partisan theater than lawmaking.
The other five Senate Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee are: Assistant Majority Leader Dave Hansen of Green Bay; Bob Jauch of Poplar; Racine’s John Lehman, who returned to the Senate after ousting Republican Van Wanggaard in a June 5 recall election; La Crosse’s Jennifer Shilling, who won a 2011 recall election against Republican Dan Kapanke; and first-termer Chris Larson of Milwaukee.
Taylor, Shilling and Hansen, who survived a recall election last year, are up for re-election Nov. 6.
Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee are Sens. Alberta Darling and Luther Olsen.
In a statement, Republican Rep. Robin Vos, Taylor’s equal as Assembly co-chairman of the Finance Committee, called it “unfortunate that (Taylor) is already threatening to split up the committee instead of working in a bipartisan fashion.
“We have a long standing tradition in the Joint Finance Committee of working together and I am hopeful we can continue that tradition,” Vos added.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.