Dems say 'Back to Work'
While Democratic leaders are skeptical, local Republican legislators are pleased with Gov. Scott Walker's decision last week to call a "Back to Work Wisconsin" special legislative session.
Twenty-six bills, six authored by Democratic lawmakers, are on the fall session agenda. The bills are grouped in six categories: Access to capital, regulatory streamlining, workforce development, tax relief, transportation and infrastructure and "litigation certainty."
"It is critical that jobs continue to be a top priority as we work to reverse the effects of the economic downturn and put people back to work," said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls). "We need to build on the initiatives we acted on earlier this year."
"It is no secret that the Legislature's main goal is to create an environment that is business friendly in Wisconsin," said Rep. John Murtha (R-Baldwin). "We want to promote economic development and job growth, while also eliminating government red-tape. I think this special session calendar is focused on those issues and can only be seen as a positive."
But Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), while appreciative that some Democratic jobs bills are included on the agenda, suggested that the Legislature rush through bills that put people to work quickly and take its time with bills that "favor special interests."
"Special sessions should be limited to bills that put people back to work now, but very little in Gov. Walker's announcement does anything to create jobs now," said Barca. "It is an abuse of power to talk about job creation and bipartisanship as a cover for advancing a partisan agenda that rewards Republican donors and special interests at the expense of Wisconsin's working, middle-class families."
Murtha countered, "The atmosphere (in Madison) is still tense at times, but the governor's call for special session has both Republicans and Democrats focused on the task of creating a better economic future for our state. I believe that the special session will prove to be a bipartisan attempt to get Wisconsin working again."
He pointed out that one of the bills on the agenda was drafted by Barca.
"We will be taking up bills to improve access to capital, including (Barca's) bill to allow refunds for early stage seed and angel investment tax credits, making business investment more attractive...," said Murtha. "One of the truly bipartisan bills I am interested seeing passed is Assembly Bill 97 relating to workforce development, being authored by Rep. Keith Ripp and Sen. Julie Lassa, that will increase grants awarded by the Wisconsin Technical College System for advanced manufacturing skills."
Barca said that much like the Republicans' last special session, the main thing "special" about this one it is that "it's loaded with giveaways to special interests."
He said 16 of the bills on the governor's list appear to reward Republican allies or powerful special interests.
"The bills passed in the earlier special session allowed Wisconsin to foster a friendlier business climate and created incentives for job creation in the private sector," said Harsdorf. She said the with the passage of bills since the beginning of the year, Wisconsin's business climate ranking jumped 17 points to 24th from 41st, according to one business publication.
Harsdorf said legislators from both parties "recognize the essential need to revitalize our economy."
Work on some of the proposals has already begun and various committees are holding public hearings and voting on bills, said Harsdorf.
"Unemployment in Wisconsin has risen at five times the national rate since January and we should have been focused sooner on putting people back to work rather than trampling workers' rights...," said Barca. He proposed that legislators from both parties work together to choose about a dozen of the best job-creation bills and take them up first.
Many of the special session bills are still in the early stages of the legislative process and will be given a public hearing prior to going to the floors of the Assembly and Senate, said Murtha. He said Assembly Republicans will caucus next Monday to discuss the bills.
The Assembly's initial floor session is planned for Oct. 18-21.
One of the bills on the special session agenda is Assembly Bill 220, authored by Murtha and Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls).
"This bill is intended to provide businesses an incentive to invest in workplace wellness programs to improve overall employee health and to eventually lower healthcare costs," said Murtha. "A workplace wellness program is defined as any program that includes a health risk assessment and one or more other programs including smoking cessation, weight management, stress management, worker injury prevention programs, health screenings, nutrition education and fitness incentive programs."
He said the bill has wide support from health and business organizations.
"What these organizations and businesses across the state know is that workplace wellness programs have improved employee productivity, lowered employee absences, reduced workplace injury rates and increased employee morale and retention," said Murtha.