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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The Wisconsin Legislature vs. the people
Republicans help wealthy donors at everybody else's expense

It seems every day brings more eye-popping news from our state Legislature.

When they are not busy pushing a bill written by a multimillionaire divorced dad and Republican campaign donor who wants to cap his own child support payments, they are working to bring back the seven-day workweek. When they are not siphoning public funds into private schools, they are giving away millions in tax dollars to a job creation agency that hands out gifts to corporations but doesn't create jobs. Forget about helping low-wage workers who lack health-care benefits, though. The Legislature turned away federal money to expand Medicaid and cut millions out of BadgerCare, the health insurer for low-income Wisconsinites.

You have to hand it to them -- at least they're consistent. If there's an issue that pits the interests of ordinary Wisconsinites against those of a wealthy elite, you can count on our leaders in the statehouse to defend the rich and corporations against kids, low-wage workers and the uninsured.

Take Assembly Bill 540, Rep. Joel Kleefisch's bold initiative to defend the interests of stingy millionaire dads.

Kleefisch withdrew the bill after Dee Hall reported in the Wisconsin State Journal that his office worked closely with Michael Eisenga, a multimillionaire business owner and a big Kleefisch donor, to write it, according to drafting documents available on the Legislature's website.

Emails and notes show that the donor, the legislator, and legislative staff struggled with how to give one rich guy a break on his child-support payments without tying up the courts with a flood of child-support orders that would have to be revised. They settled on a standard that would have rewarded Eisenga -- but not your average divorced dad. The bill capped the amount of income subject to child-support payments at $150,000 a year and forbade the court from considering a father's assets.

That would have worked out great for Eisenga, a Columbus developer, who was ordered to pay a minimum of $15,000 a month for his three children based on his 2010 income of $1.2 million and assets of $30 million, according to the State Journal.

It just so happens that Eisenga maxed out on campaign contributions to Kleefisch six times. He also gave $7,500 to Kleefisch's wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and $15,000 to Gov. Scott Walker.

The millionaire dad law is dead now, thanks to Hall's great reporting, aided by Wisconsin's open records laws. But this is more than one isolated story. It's actually the new model for how Republicans do business in our state.

Take the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which has been handing out money to companies that happen to be big Republican donors, on the theory that these incentives will induce the "job creators" to create some jobs. Instead, the agency lost a lot of the money, gave it to companies for jobs that existed before the program went into effect, and bought Badger tickets and iTunes gift cards for staff.

The net effect? Wisconsin lags the region in job creation and had the highest number of unemployment claims in the nation in November.

So what does the Legislature do? It releases millions to the WEDC to keep up the good work.

The drive to do away with the weekend is another example of our pay-to-play government at work. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's biggest business lobby and a major Republican contributor, is pushing for the law so that employers can "allow" their employees to work seven days a week.

Sponsors Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend and Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam say Wisconsinites are clamoring to give up their weekends and are unfairly restrained by state law that says they have to take a break for 24 hours in any seven-day workweek. But Grothman makes no bones about the fact that WMC came up with the idea.

The privatization of our public schools in Wisconsin follows the same pattern.

The powerful school privatization lobby, which now employs three former Assembly speakers who walk the halls of the Capitol and twist arms, ranks with the WMC as a top donor to state Republicans and is pushing for profit-making education companies to get a piece of the state's public-school funds.

An Assembly committee last week took up a bill that would make it easier for independent, profit-making charter schools to proliferate, without oversight by local school boards and communities. These schools take money right off the top of state education funds, draining money from every public school in the state.

Rocketship, a California-based charter school company that has been expanding its business into Milwaukee, lobbied for the bill and appears to be its primary beneficiary.

In an offhand remark during the debate on a companion measure in the Senate, Sen. Luther Olsen commented, "We're just doing this for Rocketship," according to one of his Democratic colleagues on the committee.

What's amazing about all this is how flagrant Republicans are about pushing legislation that narrowly benefits their own benefactors -- at great cost to the taxpayers, public school kids and regular citizens of the state.

How long can we sustain this kleptocracy before there's nothing left?

Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.

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