One of the Republican leaders at the new-look Wisconsin statehouse thinks he knows exactly why voters ushered Democrats out the door in November -- they operated in secret and were careless with your tax dollars.
So says state Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), the incoming Assembly speaker.
In a Nov. 29, 2010 news release under the headline "Democrats continue closed-door deals," Fitzgerald warned against a possible December special session to approve labor deals with state employee unions before Republicans take control in January.
He then reached back a year to portray a pattern of bad conduct: "In 2009, (Gov.) Jim Doyle and the Democrats rushed through a budget repair bill with billions in tax increases and held no public hearings."
As devoted Madison watchers, that raised a few obvious questions: Were there really no hearings, not a one? And "billions" of tax hikes slipped into a bill meant to fix a mid-budget shortfall?
In short: Is Fitzgerald rewriting history?
When we asked Fitzgerald spokesman Jim Bender about the tax figure, he told us he erred in using "billions."
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the official scorekeeper, estimated the repair bill would raise $290 million from tax changes. The main source was "combined reporting," in which lawmakers closed what some viewed as a loophole that allowed corporations to shuffle profits to subsidiaries in states that don’t tax them.
If a new fee on hospital revenue was included, the new revenue total was $1.2 billion over three years, according to the fiscal bureau.
That element features its own mini debate:
The fiscal bureau calls the hospital assessment a fee. Media reports commonly referred to it as a tax. Hospitals backed the fee because it allowed the state to tap a large new stream of federal money that boosts Medicaid reimbursement to hospitals; Republicans derided it as a "sick tax" that would raise costs to patients.
Bender told us he counted the hospital fees as a tax -- but mistakenly used "billions."
"Normally, I use specifics, but in this instance generalized," he said.
So, the underlying math in the statement is off -- by either $800 million or $1.71 billion, depending on how you view the hospital fee.
But what about the way the bill was passed?
It was pushed through the Legislature at warp speed -- two days -- when compared with four previous repair bills dating to 2002. The range on those was from 21 to 150 days. The speed was partly a function of the Democrats controlling both houses and the governor’s office.
As for the lack of public hearings, Fitzgerald is right -- there were none.
But a look into the past shows a spotty record on such hearings when it comes to budget repair bills -- with Republicans and Democrats both on the hook for blame or credit.
We looked back at four such bills -- one in 2002 offered by Republican Gov. Scott McCallum -- and three earlier fixes under Doyle, a Democrat. Budget repair bills have become much more common in recent years as the economy sagged.
On the earlier Doyle bills, the Legislature twice held public hearings. In one case, Republicans controlled both chambers; the parties shared control in the other.
But in 2007, another year with split control, no public hearing accompanied the action.
Under McCallum in 2002, lawmakers convened two such hearings on a highly contentious plan. The two parties split control at that time as well.
Let’s consign this discussion to the dustbin of history.
No matter how you add it up, Fitzgerald misfired badly on the tax figure he used in his news release slamming Democrats. His own aide admitted it. He is correct on the rushed nature of the 2009 budget fix. On the question of public hearings, Fitzgerald is right there were none -- but his rhetoric skipped past the fact such hearings have not always been held. Indeed, both parties have had a hand in that fact. We rate his claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.