GOP Philosophical Debates Stall State Budget Compromise

Home » Here & Now » GOP Philosophical Debates Stall State Budget Compromise
Premiere Date: 
July 7, 2017

GOP Philosophical Debates Stall State Budget Compromise

For weeks now, big-ticket items in Washington and Wisconsin remain stuck in neutral, failing to get traction to move ahead. We talk to former state legislator and UW-Milwaukee Prof. Mordecai Lee about federal health care policy and the state budget impasse. "When someone draws a line in drying concrete," Lee says of Gov. Scott Walker's budget position, "the concept of a compromise falls apart."

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

For weeks, some big ticket items in Washington and Wisconsin have appeared stuck in neutral, failing to get traction to move ahead. In tonight's capitol insight, why majority Republicans seem stalled on issues of health care at the national level and the state budget here at home. UW-Milwaukee professor and former legislator Mordecai Lee joins us from Milwaukee for tonight's capital insight. Thanks a lot for being here.

Mordecai Lee:

Thank you, Frederica.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, we can say that Governor Walker reached out late this week with what seemed to be a compromise to try to bring his party's factions together over transportation funding in the budget. In fact, we want to show you what he wanted to do. In a letter to the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader, the governor proposed reducing transportation bonding by $200 million, approving contingency bonding linked to additional federal funding for southeast mega projects, while maintaining his position of no gas tax or fee increases. So, Mordecai, in your mind has the governor put this into drive to get over the impasse?

Mordecai Lee:

Well, certainly the governor wants this resolved, because when you're the governor, you ultimately get blamed for everything. You know, a kid in Waukesha stubs his toe and it's the governor's fault. Here we've got a situation, we're going into the second week of July and there still is no budget. And the day that the legislature passes the budget is not the day we have a budget. A governor needs about a week or two to read it, to decide on line item vetoes. We're looking at now late July, and I think he would sort of lose face. The guy who wants to run for re-election, that he's been a good governor. He just doesn't want to let it go that long.

Frederica Freyberg:

It seems like this is how it's supposed to work, pulling disparate sides together through some kind of a compromise.

Mordecai Lee:

I guess in this new era of ideological politics, the concept of compromise isn't what it used to be. I spent my time in locked rooms with my adversaries. And after we yelled and screamed at each other, somebody would say, "There's got to be a number in between where you are and where they are. Why don't we go to that number." The problem with that old dynamic of political compromise is when you've got somebody who draws a line, not in the sand, but a line in drying concrete and says, "Absolutely, positively no increase in the gas tax or the registration fee," now all of a sudden the concept of a compromise sort of falls apart. Because what is the logical compromise? The logical compromise is less bonding and a little bit more taxes. But just like you can't be a little bit pregnant, you can't have a little bit more taxes. If you violate a pledge on increasing taxes, that's viewed as a violation. So I think what's really going on in the capitol building is an argument over what it means to be a conservative. The new conservatives are saying, "Never, ever an increase in taxes." And I guess you'd call them old-fashioned conservatives are saying, "We have to be fiscally responsible. We can't keep going into debt." And so I think from a point of view of just the power of ideas, this is fascinating to watch.

Frederica Freyberg:

Does this budget episode over transportation funding suggest some muscle-flexing on the part of Assembly Speaker Vos, you know, kind of going his way?

Mordecai Lee:

I really think you're on to something, Frederica, in the sense that I think what we're seeing is sort of what James Madison, who is named after our state capitol, what James Madison intended when he helped draft the Constitution. In other words, that regardless of what he called faction -- that was the word for parties in those days. Regardless of faction, that there would be separate but equal arms of government. That the legislature would have a perspective different from the executive and that that kind of clash of perspectives would be healthy. In other words, we're the opposite of a parliamentary democracy, where a prime minister by definition has the majority in the parliament. So I think this is the way it's supposed to work. Speaker Vos is seeing the world slightly differently from the majority leader of the Senate and from the governor and that's to be expected. That's in a sense the American system working the way it's supposed to, even though they're all Republicans.

Frederica Freyberg:

Let’s get to the wheel-spinning on the national level over health care. Does this suggest just how complicated all the moving parts are to such a law or is it more about philosophy on the part of Senate Republicans who apparently cannot agree?

Mordecai Lee:

Frederica, I think the correct answer is all of the above. In other words, health care is difficult to reform because there are lots of dials. And anytime you touch one dial, it cascades around to the other areas. And the ideological differences in terms of maintain the ban on pre-existing conditions or not, that's a philosophical issue. How much do we change Obamacare so we can claim we repealed it? This is politics and ideology and practicality and plain old public policy all bollixed up. I don't see right now that we should view any kind of political failure going on in the Senate. These things take time. Legislative bodies take time.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. We need to leave it there. Thank you very much for your insight.

Mordecai Lee:

You’re welcome.

Share this page

Have questions, comments, or story ideas?


WisContext

WisContext serves the residents of Wisconsin, providing information and insight into issues as they affect the state.