On Jan. 18, 2005, the new Wisconsin legislative session was barely two weeks old. One of the first bills to receive a hearing in the Senate Education Committee was a proposal to eliminate the 15,000-pupil cap on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provides state tax money so children can attend private schools.
First to testify before the committee was 31-year-old newly elected state Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee). Fields, a vocal proponent of the choice program, testified that lifting the participation cap would benefit thousands of African American children in his district.
After his testimony, Fields was grilled by Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar), a 24-year veteran of the Legislature. The irascible and long-winded Jauch is proud of his support of public schools, and steadfastly opposes the choice program. He blasted Fields for turning his back on the public school children of Milwaukee, figuring his stature as a longstanding liberal would overwhelm the baby-faced legislator.
But Fields didn't back down. He shot right back at Jauch, saying it was immoral to trap young African American children in failing public schools. Jauch appeared dumbfounded that he would be lectured on education issues by someone so new to the legislative process. The bill narrowly passed out of committee, with Jauch opposing it.
These days, instances of young Wisconsin legislators bucking their elders and shaking up the Legislature may be rarer than ever, primarily because the number of young elected officials has been dwindling.
As elected officials increasingly view their jobs as careers, they have tended to stay in office longer. In 1977, the average age for Wisconsin senators and representatives was 43 and 42, respectively. By 2007, those averages had jumped to 55 and 50.
Old age may be the primary reason 23 Wisconsin legislators have already announced their retirements in 2010. UW-Madison political science professor David Canon says these departures, coupled with the number of incumbent legislators who are likely to lose, means the state could see "a higher turnover in Wisconsin elections than we've seen in the last 50 years."
And many of the new arrivals will likely be younger.
That could be good for Wisconsin, as young Turks replace the Old Guard. But what will a newer, younger Legislature do differently?
In November 2008, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), my employer, conducted a poll that gauged the legislative priorities of Wisconsin's citizens by age.
One finding concerned the issue addressed by Rep. Fields. According to the WPRI poll, younger respondents were more likely to support the Milwaukee Choice Program. Among respondents 18 to 44 years old, 52% supported the program, while 43% opposed it. Among respondents 45 or older, the numbers virtually flipped - 41% in favor, 52% against. The strongest support - 62% - came from those 25 to 34.
Younger respondents prioritized education more than their older counterparts. Of those between 18 and 44 years old, 18.4% listed education as their most pressing issue, more than double the 8.7% of respondents 45 or older.
On the other hand, as expected, older respondents prioritized health care much higher than younger respondents. Among respondents over 45, 30.2% picked health care as their top legislative priority, compared to only 14.9% of those under 45.
Younger people (again, those under 45) were also less likely to emphasize tax reform as a priority (11.4% to 16.6%), but more likely to stress the economy and jobs (31.6% to 24.6%).
Granted, merely because the Legislature gets younger, it doesn't necessarily mean "young people's" issues will take on newfound importance. In many ways, the priorities of the Legislature are set by voters, who are growing increasingly older. Obviously, elected officials ignore constituents at their own peril.
But it's possible that new, young legislators will be willing to address issues neglected by their aged predecessors. Perhaps they will think more long-term and muster the courage to address the state's $2.7 billion deficit structurally, and not just spasmodically.
Maybe they will begin to stabilize the state's fiscal infrastructure by putting aside money in a rainy-day fund, to avoid the budgeting catastrophes Wisconsin has endured for nearly a decade. (Wisconsin currently sets aside less than 1% of its expenditures, while the average state puts 5% into its stabilization fund.)
What we do know is that the Legislature can't get much more dismal. Hopefully, a crop of young, new legislators, and the fresh priorities they bring with them, can set Wisconsin back on the right path.
Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.