Our Dysfunctional State Government

Republicans wanted something. Democrats wanted something. Everybody was in Madison under the same dome. Why didn’t anybody try to work something out?

Yesterday encapsulated what’s wrong with Wisconsin state government. Republican Speaker Robin Vos called an extraordinary session in an attempt to override a veto of a GOP bill to end extra Federal unemployment benefits a month early. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers countered by calling a special session for the purpose of adding $550 million to education spending. There was never any chance that either would succeed. They didn’t. Everybody went home.

And the point of all that was? Well, there wasn’t much point at all beyond the per diems that legislators could collect for their brief stay in Madison. Each side was trying to score some lame political point. Republicans wanted their message to be that Democrats don’t care about small businesses desperate for workers. Democrats wanted to say that Republicans don’t care about education, students and teachers. I doubt that most sane Wisconsinites were paying a whole lot of attention to any of it.

The root of the problem: these guys just can’t work together.

But if the political waters weren’t so poisoned this actually would have set up as a chance for compromise and progress. If the sides were talking with each other, instead of at and through each other, there could have been a productive negotiation. Democrats would go along with ending the UI benefits if Republicans would go along with the added education money.

Now, I don’t necessarily buy the argument that the extra $375 a week is keeping a lot of people out of the work force. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is down pretty much to where it was before the pandemic began. It’s 3.9% now; it was 3.5% then. But, on the other hand, the extra benefits were designed to get people through times when there just weren’t jobs available. They’re plentiful now.

Democratic opposition to ending the benefits about four weeks before they will expire automatically on September 6th was more about making rhetorical points about the need for things like paid medical leave and improved child care. I agree about that, but this was more posturing than substance.

Same goes for the Republicans. Vos has said that he’s going to use the big surplus accruing in state accounts to send more money to schools in the next budget. So, why not compromise a little and send it now? Well, the simple answer, I suppose, is that he doesn’t want to give Evers a victory in the year before his reelection.

So, given each party’s political reasons for wanting to posture instead of legislate, was there any real chance for compromise anyway? It’s hard to say. The trouble is that there’s no dialogue, no relationship at all between the Governor and the Speaker. This sort of impasse was foreordained by the last three years.

And without changing the personnel this same dysfunction will continue as far as the eye can see.

Welcome to the 161st consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Our Dysfunctional State Government

  1. What makes anyone believe that changing the people will change the outcomes? As I wrote in an earlier post, the laws need to change if we want to change the outcomes. Our system of government in the context of today’s society incentivizes exactly the behavior we’re seeing. No amount of marginal tweaks or selecting new candidates under the same selection system will produce different fundamental outcomes.


    1. I have to disagree with you on this one, Rollie. You’re right, of course, that there are structural disincentives to compromise, but look what’s been accomplished in DC on the infrastructure bill? It’s largely because of Joe Biden’s experience and predisposition to legislate. Same goes for the Senators who brokered the deal.


      1. I guess I see the infrastructure bill as something that was already widely accepted and desired. Recall that infrastructure was also a priority of the last administration, and the need to make sure that our bridges don’t fall on top of people is fairly understood even among the ruling class.

        So yeah, things that are already generally agreed upon by those with wealth/power are allowed to move forward and have accompanying negotiations around the edges. It’s even better if lots of time and attention are expended in these negotiations, as that takes away bandwidth from other truly undesirable things that make bad PR for them. It’s impossible that the things that either side went to the mat for in these infrastructure negotiations make the wealthy/powerful think twice. That’s the point, it’s not like tax increases were allowed to be included. The field of play is situated so that wherever the ball lands it’s a win or draw for wealth/power. Any effort to expand the field of play by even 1 yard into territory objectionable to wealth/power is fought with every resource available. Not an inch without a fight.

        Things that those with money/power don’t care either way about are allowed to be the tools of the politicians to sway voters – and clearly the policies in this article don’t matter either way to people with wealth/power. Your article already explained why those issues wouldn’t matter either way to them. Thus there was no reason to even talk about how to compromise or trade: the parties don’t actually “want” these things beyond their ability to use the topics as political tools. Different people in those chairs would do the same because that is the current structure.

        Even things huge majorities of voters of both parties really want never see the light of day. Think the tax code will get simplified any time soon?

        This country was founded to create a system through which people with money/power could self-govern and politically navigate their differences and reach compromise on the issues that matter to them. The history of our country demonstrates a wonderful and often tragic and heartbreaking effort by regular people to expand the right for the non-wealthy, non-male, non-white to have a say as well. That’s not finished yet, and just putting new bodies into the same offices won’t get us closer, unless those new bodies are busy changing laws to better realize the promise of democracy.

        So I guess my fundamental differentiation is moderation/negotiation among those actually in power vs moderation/negotiation among a democratic populace. We really do already have the former, and they really do negotiate among themselves, and we won’t get the latter without big changes, which funny enough will be characterized as extremist positions… win-win for the status quo.

        I’ll eat my words and renew my faith in our government if the “human” infrastructure bill (including increased taxes, not just debt) or any type of true voting rights bill gets passed, even with concessions and negotiations and even through reconciliation.


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