Steven Walters: 2014 proves to be year to fasten your seat belts in Wisconsin politics

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Steven Walters
December 29, 2014

It was quite a year in Wisconsin politics, as this Top Ten list proves.

No. 1: Same-sex marriage legalized. Although 59 percent of voters in 2006 added a ban of same-sex marriage to Wisconsin's constitution, federal judges across the nation imposed the broader standard on Wisconsin and most other states.

It's the top story because it significantly changed the cultural norms of Wisconsin and it resulted from the actions of federal judges—not an elected state official or voter.

No. 2: “Walker wave” election. Republican Gov. Scott Walker not only won his third election in four years on Nov. 4, getting 52.7 percent of the vote, but voters also gave Republicans 63-36 control of the Assembly—the largest margin in decades. And Republicans will have 19-14 control of the Senate..

No. 3: Walker for president. The week he was re-elected, Walker told a reporter to keep his name on the list of “serious” Republican candidates for president. He kept his re-election campaign team intact but refocused on running for the White House. His anti-union policies have reaped millions in donations from conservatives nationally.

A 47-year-old Wisconsin governor getting enough national buzz to be mentioned with GOP presidential candidates, and calling Republican gains in the Nov. 4 elections a rebuke of Democrat Hillary Clinton, is stunning—no matter what you think of Walker.

No. 4: Photo ID to vote? Yes—no! The 2011 law requiring voters to present a photo ID has been tied up in courts since then with one exception: a low-turnout April election. Days before the Nov. 4 vote this year, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed the photo ID requirement.

But retiring Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen predicts that, when voters pick a president and U.S. senator in 2016, they will have to show a photo ID.

No. 5: John Doe documents. Local prosecutors, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, began two secret John Doe criminal investigations on whether Walker, his aides and supporters broke campaign-finance laws.

But the targets of those probes fought them in court, forcing the release of thousands of documents that showed:

-- Walker's campaign to survive the 2012 recall election coordinated extensively with business and other groups to help the governor survive.

-- Gogebic Taconite donated $700,000 to help Walker and Republican senators survive recalls months before mining laws were rewritten to help Gogebic.

-- Government Accountability Board leaders worked with John Doe prosecutors before the GAB formally approved it.

No. 6: Campaign-finance rules erased. Other rulings by federal judges voided—or at least put in limbo—laws saying no one could contribute more than $10,000 to campaigns, limiting the size of donations to candidates for specific offices, banning donations by corporations and prohibiting collusion between candidates' campaigns and independent groups.

How will Republican legislators rewrite those laws?

No. 7: Democrat Mary Burke. The former state Commerce Department secretary stepped forward to run against Walker, staking her campaign with $5 million.

She was the first major-party female to run a credible campaign for governor, even if she stumbled over an economic development plan that was partly plagiarized and spent the final days of the campaign explaining that she wasn't fired in 1993 by relatives who ran the family business, Trek Bicycle.

No. 8: Mark Gottlieb's big request. To maintain highways and bridges through mid-2017, the state transportation secretary asked for $751 million in higher taxes and fees and $574 million from the state's general fund.

The bold, unpopular package would raise state gas and diesel taxes, impose a surtax on new vehicles sales and raise registration fees for hybrid and electric vehicles.

No. 9: Budget deficit returns. State agencies say they need $2.2 billion more than tax collections will total in the next two years. A Dec. 19 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau pegged the gap at $824 million. Pick a number; the budget deficit is back.

No. 10: Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer self-destructs. The Waukesha lawmaker must rebuild his life after being convicted of sexual assault, sentenced to jail, stripped of his leadership post and giving up his Assembly seat.

Honorable mentions: Potawatomi Tribe withholds $25 million in casino payments to state, protesting possible Kenosha casino. Congressman Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville chairs the most powerful U.S. House committee and ponders a run for president.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at [email protected].


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