Capitol aides find ways to campaign
More than one in five full-time state Assembly staffers weren’t working in the Capitol last week.
Instead, with the Nov. 6 election only days away, they had taken leaves of absence to campaign for their bosses or other candidates of their respective parties. Or, they used vacation time to campaign. And, in two cases, aides were running for Assembly seats.
Both parties have done this for decades. As November elections approach, party leaders tell top aides: You will be taking a leave of absence to campaign for me or others. Those leaders can also hint that campaigning might also be a good use of vacation time.
If you’re one of those aides and your job depends on whether your boss wins re-election or whether your party controls the Assembly or Senate for two years, you do as you’re told.
It’s not a glamorous life: You shuttle from the town of Hot Shoe to the village of Flowerpot, urge volunteers to do one more “knock and drop” front-door encounter with voters, try to scare up more volunteers for the last-weekend push, deliver brochures and yard signs to supporters, drive the candidate around and sleep on someone’s futon to control expenses.
Assembly records listed 29 staff members on leaves of absence last week—21 Republicans and eight Democrats. Five Senate aides have also taken leaves. No list of vacationing aides was available, although some aides work for a few hours in the Capitol each day and then claim vacation for the rest of the day.
Two aides took leaves to run for Assembly seats:
--John Jagler of Watertown is the Republican candidate in District 37. For the last two years, he was the $60,000-per-year spokesman for outgoing Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon.
--Ryan Schroeder of Delavan is the Democratic candidate in District 31. He is on leave from his $44,200-per-year job as an aide to Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee.
When legislative aides take unpaid leaves of absences, Wisconsin taxpayers do not pay their salaries or the state contributions toward retirement and Social Security taxes, Assembly Chief Clerk Pat Fuller said.
In this election year, for example, taxpayers will save $304,666 in salaries and benefits that would otherwise have been paid to aides on leave, Fuller estimated.
To make sure aides on leaves do not lose their insurance coverages, political parties usually reimburse the state to cover the employer costs of insurances, Fuller added.
Political parties are not paying for health insurance of Jagler and Schroeder, however.
Taxpayers are paying the employer’s share of Jagler’s and Schroeder’s health care costs through the authorized leave of absence coverage period. Jagler is paying the state’s share of his insurance coverage beyond the authorized coverage period. Both Jagler and Schroeder are paying the employee share of their insurance premiums during their entire leaves of absences, Fuller said.
Jay Heck, executive director of the nonprofit Common Cause in Wisconsin, said the current honor system of separating official Capitol work from campaigning is better than the pre-2002 era, when many legislative aides campaigned on state time.
Heck ought to know; he got caught up in the system as a staffer for the now-abolished Senate Democratic Caucus in 1990-92.
Although reforms were implemented in 2002, after five legislative leaders were convicted of misconduct, Heck said it worked this way in the early-1990s:
“Staffers took vacation time to work on campaigns. So we did not go off the state payroll, nor did we have state-paid health care or other benefits cut off when working on campaigns.
“Then, after the election, staffers could use accrued ‘comp time’ for vacation. So, in effect, there was no loss of vacation at all when working on campaigns. It was all taxpayer-subsidized partisan political activity.”
Guilt was one reason Heck pushed for these reforms: Abolishing leader-controlled partisan caucuses. Rules that require aides to document on-the-job time and stipulate that partisan political activity can be undertaken only if they were not receiving taxpayer-paid salaries or benefits. Better training.
How can taxpayers know these 2002 reforms still work?
“Proactive release of public records and campaign records by legislators for public inspection would be the best way to demonstrate compliance,” Heck said. “This information ought to be readily available for public inspection.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email email@example.com.