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Wisconsin Wacko Birds

WISCONSIN – Sen. John McCain calls conservatives who don’t play by the parlor game rules of establishment politics “wacko birds.” While a small but hardy contingent of conservatives have been creating a stir in Washington over their unwillingness to go along with the status quo, at the state level the fight against liberals in both parties is also being waged.

In Wisconsin, a band of “wacko bird” conservative legislators – mostly in the Assembly – have been creating havoc by calling attention to the rather bloated state budget Republican leaders are pushing through the legislature. For months conservative lawmakers, nearly all of them freshman or sophomores elected as part of the conservative groundswell that propelled Scott Walker into the governor’s mansion, have begun expressing concern over government spending.

Last week, 11 representatives signed a letter to GOP leadership in the Assembly drawing a line in the sand saying they would not support the state budget if it did not reduce debt spending, include a $752 million tax cut, eliminate the marriage tax penalty, and remove a provision requiring DNA collections upon arrest for any offense. (PDF of letter here.)

Introduced in February, the two-year budget proposal grows state government by $2 billion, or a 5% total growth of government. Throughout the committee process Republicans managed to offer only minor tweaks to the budget while larding it up with earmarks for well-connected entities.

Some Republican leaders, particularly Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have not been eager to cut spending despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. When a plan to cut taxes by $752 million emerged last week, Vos wavered and indicated he couldn’t use political capital to push the tax cut and tax code overhaul through the Assembly.

Never mind that when it comes to spending for special interests Vos intrepidly pulls out all the stops to rush a bill through the Assembly. In the case of a $1 million earmark sent to a manufacturing association, Vos ramrodded the bill through his chamber and then crowed about the bi-partisan support for the spending.

Conservative legislators opposed him on that vote.

When a group of dentists asked the state to unilaterally rewrite private contracts between them and some insurance companies, Vos played hardball to secure the favor for the Wisconsin Dental Association. The political arm of the dental group has sent thousands of dollars to Vos’ campaign coffers.

Vos finally relented under growing pressure from conservatives, including another letter signed by 11 other representatives and 1 senator (not all of whom are particularly conservative) to include a pared down version of the tax cut in the budget deal he cut. The budget writing committee, which includes members from both the Senate and Assembly, passed the deal early Wednesday.

Conservatives have yet to figure out what all is included in the deal.

A year out from Governor Walker’s triumph in a recall election, and conservatives are fighting hard against Republican legislative leaders to achieve real reform. If the initial Gang of 11 is able to hang tough, they may not achieve a reduction in the size of government this time around, but they will likely set the stage for future fights.

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