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Darling's resolve not dampened by budget controversy

She said she's defending the rights of taxpayers, November voters

March 15, 2011

State Sen. Alberta Darling has been in Wisconsin state government for more than two decades, but has never been through anything like the cacophony of media attention, protests and rancorous support both for and against the proposed budget bills.

Dialogue has turned from a conversation to a shouting match between opposing sides as the battle over the budget rages.

Audible changes game

When 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois to block the passage of the budget repair bill that slashed collective bargaining power for public employees and added employee payments for pension and health care, no end appeared in sight.

That, Darling said, is the reason the remaining 19 Senate Republicans decided to take the bonding previsions out of the repair bill in order to pass it without the quorum requirement of 20 senators. Any bill that requires funding allocations needs a quorum, but those were removed from the original repair bill.

This tactic could have been employed much earlier, but Darling said the Republicans wanted to give the Democrats the opportunity to return and become part of the process.

"We felt it was the thing to do to work it out," she said, adding that when the Democrat-led state Legislature passed $1 billion in tax increases, she played her part in the minority.

"When (former Gov. Jim) Doyle raised taxes, which I was totally opposed to, I debated against it, took the vote and moved on. That's representative democracy," explained Darling.

"It was like, 'Screw you, taxpayers, we don't care about (what) you can afford to give, it's about what we want to get paid,' " she said, referring to tax increases under Doyle.

Taking on critics

And while Darling insists she's defending taxpayers, she understands critics remain. Some charge the repair bill was pushed through illegally and hastily in order to prevent blockage, a claim Darling vehemently denies.

"I don't know how someone can say this was done behind closed doors. This bill has been out there for weeks. This bill has been debated more than any bill I've ever voted on."

The repair bill was voted on in a special committee March 9 in late afternoon and voted on in the Senate that night without debate. The state Assembly then voted March 10 mostly along partisan lines to approve the altered bill, which means from start to finish the new bill took only about 24 hours to pass.

Why education?

Others wonder why education and health care had to take some major hits while tax breaks were given to businesses. However, Darling notes that education is the top appropriation of state funds and accounts from between 40 and 50 percent of the total appropriations, with Medicaid being the second largest.

"We are in a serious budget crisis, there was no way education was going to go unscathed," she said.

More than $834 million in state aid was cut from education, in part, Darling said, because cuts should have come under the last biennium when Doyle and the Democrat-led Legislature filled a budget deficit with $1 billion in one-time stimulus dollars.

Hits to education have been a major concern for school districts in Darling's senate district, including Menomonee Falls, which faces a deficit that had ballooned to $5 million - a figure that does not account for the $2 million in savings from the repair bill.

Darling also pointed out that the so-called tax breaks for businesses are really tax credits on capital gains made by businesses that are invested in the state. Removal of such credits, which Darling said will spur job growth, would make up for only a fraction of the cuts.

Bargaining powers stripped

The repair bill was not just about the quantitative financial savings this year, but stripping collective bargaining powers for public-employee unions aimed at creating what Republicans deemed a more sustainable system.

"I give the minority part a lot of credit for refocusing this as a rights issue when it's protecting the taxpayers resources to put them in the best places to get them the best services," Darling said. "The unions are trying to make example of us who dare go to bat for the taxpayer. Teachers are probably our most valuable resource in our community. We're trying to keep teachers in the classroom versus paying for Viagra benefits or paying $20,000 to $25,000 for health for a family of four."

The dollar amount Darling uses refers to the insurance costs under Wisconsin Education Association Trust, the insurance many districts use. The repair bill would allow districts, no longer having to collectively bargain over the insurance portion, to shop for more affordable plans.

State employees like teachers and administrators would still be able to bargain for wages, which Darling points would give them more bargaining power than federal employees.

Death threats and recalls

Darling and many of her fellow senators walk around with police escorts, all of which costs the taxpayers about $3,000 a week. Death threats, recall efforts and constant protests are among the obstacles Darling faces on a daily basis, yet her resolve remains.

"People have to realize what this is doing to our democratic process. People think they can just shout people down versus a reasonable discussion. Then where are we with our future as a state? Very disappointing and very sad," Darling said, referring to the raucous protests and a particularly rowdy town hall meeting in Wauwatosa that had to be stopped.

Darling recognizes the power of the protesters, but said she's mindful that Republicans won a decisive victory in November, flipping both houses in Madison.

"We have to be very careful about letting a thousand protesters deafen the voices from the people who voted in the last election," she said. "People need to say, 'Who's in charge here?' "

Recall efforts have started against Darling, and it's not uncommon to drive down a street in Whitefish Bay or Shorewood and see people holding signs urging others to sign the recall petition. The long-time senator is aware she is beholden to the will of the people and has held listening sessions to get feedback from her constituents. She said her last session drew more than 2,300 people, most of whom she said were in favor of the proposed reforms.

"If they get the votes, I respect that. It's a due process," Darling said of the recalls. "I ran on being a protector of the taxpayer, of living within our means so that we could grow jobs and addressing the spending so our state would be a better place to grow.

"In my heart I've done my best."

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