Senate veteran Ellis wants to avoid ‘another war’
“I have no desire to crawl inside the private sector—and start another war.” Senate President Mike Ellis said that last week as he looked at images of protesters swarming the Michigan state Capitol, where the Michigan House was debating a right-to-work bill. Michigan Gov. Gov. Rick Snyder quickly signed it into law.
Ellis’ comment came in response to this question: Will debate on a right-to-work bill—and a new round of massive protests in Madison that would trigger—occur in Wisconsin’s 2013-14 legislative session?
No, the wily 42-year veteran of Wisconsin’s Capitol said. It was a rare one-word answer.
If the Neenah Republican has anything to say about it—and he will—there won’t be any repeat of the drama, anger, massive protests and police squads that occupied the Capitol for weeks in February and March of 2011.
Instead, Ellis said the only thing Senate Republicans have agreed on so far is the need for a middle-class tax cut, which would prompt consumer spending that creates jobs.
Ellis shrugged; he’s just one of Wisconsin’s 33 state senators. Why ask what he thinks?
“The Senate president only has one vote,” Ellis added. “Let’s not overload ‘Senate president.’”
But the former math teacher will play a huge role in what passes—and doesn’t pass—in the 101st session of the Legislature that convenes in January. It will be his 30th year in the Senate.
That’s why what Ellis said about three controversial issues is important.
First, Ellis said Walker and Republican legislators had to control public employee salaries, wages and benefits in 2011. Facing a state budget deficit, Republicans “did what we had to do” because salaries, wages and benefits make up 74 percent of all spending by state and local governments, he added.
Their changes made public employees pay more for health care and pensions, and all but eliminated collective bargaining for public workers except firefighters and police officers.
But, Ellis said, lawmakers in 2011 deliberately “did not go into the private sector” and did not interfere with union-employer relations in private business.
And, Ellis said, Republicans should not go there next year. “I have no intention of moving to the private sector.”
Second, Ellis said ending same-day voter registration isn’t needed because the Legislature passed a photo ID requirement to vote. Two Dane County judges have ruled the photo ID law unconstitutional, prompting appeals by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
Weeks ago, Walker told California Republicans he would like to see an end to same-day voter registration. But, on Wednesday, Walker said a new, $5.2 million estimate of the cost of that change makes it too expensive to pursue.
Ellis said requiring voters to show a photo ID offers enough protection against fraud. He wants judges to uphold the photo ID requirement.
“We have passed a protective way to authenticate the truthfulness of the person walking in the (polling place) door, regardless of when they walk in,” Ellis said. “I don’t see any reason why we should deny a person their right to vote, provided they can prove who they are.”
Third, Ellis said problems with the Government Accountability Board (GAB), which oversees elections and ethics laws, can be fixed without replacing the six retired judges on the GAB with political partisans.
Other Republican leaders are angry at the GAB for many things, including allowing first-time voters to use cellphones to display electronic records showing where they live. But Ellis said changes can be addressed by tweaking state law instead of firing the GAB’s judges.
Once state law is clarified to specify what the GAB can and cannot do, legislators can review—and veto—the GAB rules on those issues, Ellis noted.
Although Ellis worked to create the GAB in 2007, he was so outspoken and critical of concessions made by Assembly Republicans and former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle that Doyle finally refused to personally meet with Ellis on that issue.
On some issues, Ellis could be joined by other Republicans, such as Sens. Dale Schultz, Rob Cowles, Luther Olsen and Sheila Harsdorf.
Schultz voted against Walker’s controversial changes, which prompted recall elections that targeted Cowles, Olsen and Harsdorf in 2011. Those three survived recalls and were then re-elected—by even bigger margins—on Nov. 6.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email email@example.com.