Counting down to the Capitol 'chaos'

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WHY DID the veteran Republican state Senate leader predict Capitol "chaos," as the Legislature struggles to end its two-year session?

Because everywhere Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald looks, he faces demands to schedule Senate votes on "just one more thing" before the session adjourns.

That pressure comes from Republican Gov. Scott Walker, special-interest groups and their lobbyists who know they only have days left to get their pet bills passed, and his fellow Republican legislators.

THE reason for the pressure is simple. All bills not passed by both Assembly and Senate, and signed into law by the governor, die when the Legislature adjourns. All those great ideas legislators and lobbyists have that don't become law must wait until next year.

Fitzgerald may also be forced to soon put out a fire he started, if he decides to ask his fellow GOP senators to name a new administrator for the state Elections Commission by March 9.

The Fitzgerald-led Senate voted to fire the current administrator, Michael Haas, although commissioners say Haas still has the job. But Fitzgerald has said, since the job is vacant, the Senate has a duty to make a new appointment.

OVERALL, it will be crunch-time "chaos," Fitzgerald told a Wisconsin Counties Association conference last week.

Consider just what Walker - the leader of the Republican Party that controls the Legislature - wants it to approve before lawmakers go home to begin to campaign for Nov. 6 elections, including the governor's bid for a third term:

• $100-per-child tax credit check mailed to parents before Nov. 6. Those checks, and a one-time August back-to-school sales tax holiday Walker and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos agreed to last week, would cost the state treasury $172 million.

• A 10-bill package of changes to Food Stamp and other welfare programs that would stiffen work or job training requirements, impose asset limits and make other changes opposed by Democrats.

The Assembly will soon act on this package, teeing it up for Senate approval.

• GIVING Kimberly-Clark, which recently said it plans to close two Wisconsin plants and lay off 600 state workers, the same 17% tax credit for each job saved that is being offered Foxconn for every new Wisconsin job that firm creates in Racine County.

• Creating a $50-million rural development fund.

• A $200-million reinsurance plan to subsidize costs for individuals buying health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Although Walker has said $150 million of that would come from the federal government, Fitzgerald and others question how the state would come up with the remaining $50 million.

• Changing health insurance laws to require coverage of those with pre-existing conditions.

• CLOSING juvenile prisons and replacing them with regional facilities or programs run by counties.

Vos said he hopes to soon announce a plan developed with county officials to move most juveniles from prisons to local facilities.

Then, consider some changes that special-interest groups and their lobbyists are pushing Fitzgerald to act on:

• Tesla wants to be able to sell cars directly to drivers - a change likely to be blocked by Wisconsin's car and truck dealers.

• The rent-to-own industry wants weaker regulations - a push that almost passed two years ago in that Legislature's final-hours crush.

• Landlords want an Assembly-passed bill limiting the authority of local governments to inspect properties with no violations of health or safety codes. It would also strengthen landlords' eviction powers.

• Developers want to be able to fill in some small wetlands without having to get state Department of Natural Resources permits.

Because this change is a top priority of Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a compromise version of it has a good chance of passing.

• Business groups want to prohibit local governments from enforcing minimum wage and other labor laws.

FITZGERALD won't have to deal with one other controversy, however. A bill requiring closed or "dark" retail stores to be assessed for property taxes similar to the assessments of open stores is dead.

But even after Fitzgerald and Vos adjourn the legislative session, they still have one more big worry: Will the U.S. Supreme Court toss out or uphold legislative district boundary lines Republicans drew in 2011?

The justices could order new districts drawn before the November elections. If they do, new chaos.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs network WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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