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On the hot seat in Wisconsin.

Republicans took over the Wisconsin Senate this spring for the first time in 28 years. And it's not as much fun as it might be with more money.

There was no honeymoon for Wisconsin Republicans, who took control of the Senate for the first time since 1975 when they won two of three special elections April 6. Republicans control with the narrowest of margins, 17-16, and perhaps only until the November 1994 elections.

On one April Tuesday, 22-year legislative veteran Michael G. Ellis officially took over as Senate majority leader. Only 48 hours later, Ellis had to be protected by five Capitol police officers as he dashed from the new office where he had barely unpacked to his car. He was surrounded by shouting and spitting employees of a suburban Milwaukee printing plant angry over losing their jobs because of a decision made by a Swiss company. Ellis and an aide drove off, as protesters pounded on the car windows and police cleared a Capitol traffic lane for the new majority leader.

Welcome to Senate control, Mr. Ellis, said Democratic senators.

Democrats, bitter at losing power, staff and their first-floor Capitol offices, went before TV cameras and the 200 angry workers to accuse Ellis of personally blocking a Senate vote on an emergency bill that would have let state government preserve jobs by condemning buying and temporarily running companies whose private owners had announced they would close. The bill would have required state government to find new buyers for the plants and would have given Wisconsin the broadest "eminent domain" power in the nation, said Attorney General James E. Doyle. The attorney general advised that he could defend the bill in court; he refused to say whether it would have been wise public policy.

For his part, Ellis admitted he was shaken by the incident, but said it was only Democrats playing in the "sandbox" of governing one last time. Ellis scheduled vote on the bill, however, which had already passed the Democratically controlled Assembly.

The incident illustrated the hardball politics that surround the Republican takeover of the Wisconsin Senate, and how fragile that control is. Democrats say three Republicans from traditionally Democratic areas are up in 1994, while only one vulnerable Democrat must face voters. Control may switch again in January 1995.

But Ellis, 52, who watched others run the Legislature for two decades, pounced on its leadership levers. Before April 6, Republican senators had agreed on how power would be structured if they took control: Only Senate president, majority leader and assistant majority leader would be elected by the caucus; the majority leader would make committee appointments. Hours after the election, Ellis replaced the Democrats, committee structure with his own committee chairs and began sorting out turf disputes.

When Republicans took control of the Senate, legislative power shifted subtly--but significantly--away from the state's two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, to mid-size cities and suburbs.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in the position of Senate president where Brian Rude replaced Democratic Senator Fred A. Risser of Madison. Risser was the only legislator to serve as president since 1979, when voters changed the constitution to get the lieutenant governor out of the chair. Although members of Risser's family have served continuously in the Wisconsin Legislature since the late 1800s, the 66-year-old Democrat started April as Senate president and ended it as the assistant minority leader.

Besides next year's elections, other major challenges confronted Republicans as they climbed into the outer ring of Senate chamber seats occupied by the majority party.

First, it was unclear exactly how much power Republican Governor Tommy G. Thompson was willing to share. A popular two-term governor planning to seek re-election in 1994, Thompson had stumped the state hard for Republican candidates in the three special elections. He said he needed his friends in control of at least one chamber to move his bills that would try to halt spiraling property taxes; stop any increase in state sales, income or business taxes; launch more experiments in welfare reform; and create pilot projects to control health care costs.

But can Thompson, who rewrote Democratic budgets for the past six years with more than 1,300 vetoes (without an override), break his habit of running against the Legislature--even when half of it is controlled by his party?

Second, the Republicans started their reign with no new pot of money for new programs. According to the Legislature's Budget Office, state government has spent more than it takes in for five straight years and expenditures will not be less than revenues until 1994-95.

Lawmakers have spent an estimated $375 million in the last five years on "short-term political gifts," such as $189.7 million in tax rebate checks prior to the 1990 elections and $24 million against future lottery profits that were advanced to keep lottery tax credits at an average of $168 per home.

No one in the Legislature wants to back a major tax increase, and Thompson promises to veto it. Whether Republicans or Democrats control, the two-letter answer is the same where new programs are concerned: No.

Ellis took two positive public relations steps in his first weeks in office. Ellis, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joseph Leean, Governor agreed to purge 110 special-interest items from the budget Thompson had introduced in February, hand them off to standing practice of governors and legislators from all parties of "porking up" the budget with local liquor licenses and other favors, knowing that the budget is the only bill that must pass.

And Ellis, mindful of his party's years in exile, offered Democrats proportional representation on all standing committees. As a result, Senate committees are as close to being equally split between parties as they can be without tipping the balance of power. Both these moves were praised in newspaper editorials.

Democrats were devastated, politically and personally, by their loss of Senate control. Exactly one month after the April 6 elections that resulted in the Republican takeover, Democratic Leader David Helbach resigned the post.

Publicly, Helbach said he wanted to focus on issues and didn't like the non-stop fund-raising and campaign managing job that being majority leader had become. But his resignation as minority leader was also prompted by a bitter split within the Senate Democratic caucus over its tradition of having the three most senior Democrats make all committee appointments.

In the Democrats' first post-election caucus, Helbach pushed hard to end the Committee on Committees--the three most senior Democrats who have made all committee appointments for decades. However, in a bitter showdown, Helbach was outvoted, the Committee on Committees made its appointments in the traditional way, and Helbach began wondering whether the minority leader's job was worth having.

Helbach's angst was painfully public. For weeks after the elections, he refused to let Capitol maintenance workers paint his name on a door leading to the minority leader's office. He never did let them do so; instead he resigned, which set off an early May scramble for the leadership post. Contenders included a senator who had just been elected on April 6.

The jostling ended when Robert Jauch, who had never before held a leadership position, was elected minority leader May 11. Jauch was elected to the state Assembly in 1982 and to the Senate in 1986.

Another repercussion of the April special elections was a weakening, at least temporarily, of Democratic control of the State Assembly. Because the three new senators were all Assembly members, their resignations dropped the margin of Democratic control in the Assembly to 51-46 with three vacancies. Then another Assembly Democratic leader, Representative Peter Barca, won a special May 4 election to replace former Congressman Les Aspin, Clinton's defense secretary. Barca's win gave Assembly Democrats only 50 votes--the barest majority possible. It ensured a bipartisan state budget with Republicans controlling the Senate and governor's chair, and Democrats unable to lose any votes in the Assembly. Three of the four special elections for the vacant Assembly seats will be held June 29 within days of an expected final vote on the state budget.
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Title Annotation:problems of Republicans who now control the Wisconsin. Legislature. Senate
Author:Walters, Steve
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Power plays in Pennsylvania.
Next Article:Lies, bribes and videotape.

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