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Friday, November 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Wondering what Wisconsin Legislature Democrats have accomplished?
Maybe the scoundrels really did accomplish something after all.
Maybe the scoundrels really did accomplish something after all.

"They really don't deserve to stay in power," said one liberal to me a couple months ago when discussing the Democratic majorities in the State Senate and Assembly. They hadn't resolved the school funding mess, looked incapable of uniting behind meaningful environmental legislation and their leadership was accused of cuddling (figuratively and literally) with representatives of the payday lenders they hoped to regulate.

Steve Walters, at Wispolitics, is not so pessimistic. He doesn't think the Dems did an okay job. He thinks they made history.

*Domestic partnerships: Although voters in 2006 rewrote the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, Doyle recommended letting those couples register with county clerks as domestic "partners," giving them some legal rights that had been reserved for spouses. Lawmakers made that change in the state budget approved last summer. A May 9 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said 1,300 couples took advantage of that law in 2009.
*Smoking ban: On July 5, indoor smoking will be banned statewide -- a move the Tavern League of Wisconsin had fought against for as many years as Doyle fought for it. Anti-smoking advocates say the ban will save lives of both smokers and those subject to secondhand smoke, although it may take a lawsuit to resolve a dispute over the new definition of "enclosed" places -- a term in the new law that covers where smoking can be legal.
*Higher corporate income tax: Exactly one year ago, the recession caused sales and income tax collections to fall off an historical cliff. That forced Doyle and Democratic leaders to raise taxes on businesses to balance the one-year budget that ended on June 30, 2009. Democratic leaders say they only closed "loopholes" that had allowed businesses to set up subsidiaries in Las Vegas and elsewhere to avoid paying their share of Wisconsin taxes; Republicans say the tax increase hurt already struggling businesses, killing jobs.
*Tougher drunken driving laws: It took years, and months of amazing Capitol drama, but the toughest changes in drunken-driving laws in years were enacted last year. For the first time, first-offense drunk driving will be a crime, if a child is in the vehicle, for example. Breathalyzers will be required for offenders with the highest blood-alcohol readings. And more repeat offenders will be sent to prison as a result of the changes.
*$4.6 billion in "stimulus" cash: Doyle and lawmakers decided how to spend a staggering $4.6 billion in federal stimulus money -- more than the state gets each year from the 5 percent sales tax, for example. Much of it will pay for public schools and health care, but $810 million of it will build high-speed passenger rail service between Milwaukee and Madison. That's the clearest divide between top Democrats and Republicans. Doyle and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett support the new passenger train line; the two best-known Republican candidates for governor vow to stop it.
*Personal income tax hikes: When higher corporate income taxes and stimulus cash from Washington weren't enough to balance the 2009-'11 budget, Doyle had to call for the wealthiest residents to pay more in income taxes. Specifically, a new 7.75 percent tax bracket became law, and the tax break on capital-gains investment returns was cut in half.
*Inmates 'early release' plan: Although a consultant recommended that state government start planning new prisons as old ones fall apart, Doyle instead recommended a new "early release" plan for inmates social workers and probation agents feel can be let out safely. The Legislature agreed, but only a few inmates have been released in the run-up to November elections, and Barrett has distanced himself from the program.
*Payday loan limits, auto title loans banned: This year, Wisconsin finally joined every other state in regulating the growing payday loan industry. And, before signing those new regulations, Doyle also vetoed what lawmakers passed in a way that will outlaw auto title loans, which the governor called a "predator" industry, as of Dec. 1.
*BadgerCare Basic health care: With 45,000 low-income residents on a waiting list for the BadgerCare health-care program partially paid for by the federal government, Doyle and Democratic legislators authorized the first government-run system of basic coverage. The governor says it won't cost taxpayers anything, since those enrolled on the program will pay an expected $130 per month to cover its costs. But Republicans say it will only worsen a looming $2-billion long-term budget deficit.
*New powers for DPI chief: Doyle couldn't even get an Assembly or Senate vote on his plan to let Milwaukee's mayor name the superintendent of that city's troubled school district. So, a watered-down compromise was finally passed giving Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, new tools to deal with the most problem-plagued districts. The compromise was also passed in an attempt to get some one-time "Race to the Top'' federal cash.

A couple weeks ago Rep. Kelda Helen Roys described the Democrats' accomplishments as making up for time lost under GOP leadership, whether in the governor's mansion or the legislature, over the last 22 years. Roys said that in the one session they hadn't made up for all the lost years, but that they had nevertheless done many years worth of work that should have been done back in the 90's.

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