Wisconsin Wave

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Ran into former Gov. Tony Earl during lunch at the Avenue Bar earlier this week and asked him how he was.

“Frankly, I’m despondent,” said the governor, who at age 75 otherwise looked quite chipper. “Every day it’s something even more unbelievable.”

Earl was talking, of course, about the goings-on in the state Capitol these days, where no one should be surprised any longer by the audacious pandering to the special interests and their bottomless cache of campaign money.

The former governor, who still does a little legal work, is appalled, for example, that the Joint Finance Committee has inserted in the budget a provision to do away with the University of Wisconsin’s plans to extend broadband Internet across the state, particularly to rural areas where schools and libraries don’t have reliable access.

The Republican majority says it doesn’t want the university to “compete” with private telecommunication companies, so it’s willing to give up a $37 million federal grant and throw broadband access to rural communities to the mercy of the private sector, which so far has done little to expand to hard-to-reach places.

So, in what has become commonplace with this crop of politicians, rural school kids will be thrown under the bus so that telecommunication giants can make yet a few more bucks off their backs. The AT&Ts of the world give politicians big bucks. School kids don’t.

But that’s just one item on the smorgasbord that legislators, particularly the gang that represents the majority on the Joint Finance Committee, have spread out for the special interests this spring. It’s been like pigs feeding at the trough.

Earlier in their deliberations, the GOP leaders inserted a tax break for those fortunate enough to earn capital gains on their investments while, at the same time, they reduced the number of poor people eligible for the earned-income tax credit.

The highway builders, huge supporters of Gov. Scott Walker and many of his colleagues in last fall’s elections, will likely get more work on expensive freeway projects, while counties and municipalities will be forbidden to do their own street and road fix-it work if the cost exceeds $100,000. That’s even if cash-strapped local governments could save money by doing the project using public workers. All of a sudden, saving money isn’t that big a deal to these Republicans when the opportunity arises to reward the road builders.

Businesses would be able to work kids under age 18 for more than 40 hours a week in a change to the state’s long-standing child labor laws, and those under age 16 could be worked for up to 40 hours when school isn’t in session.

Ski hills would no longer have to pay sales tax on the equipment they purchase, and direct-mail advertising would get a half-million-dollar a year sales tax exemption.

Even those small, enterprising craft brewers around the state are likely to be sacrificed to appease the likes of foreign-owned MillerCoors, the grocery industry, the tavern lobby and other powerful political players. The craft brewers would no longer be eligible for distributors’ licenses so they can market directly to retailers.

All of these provisions are in the state budget that goes to the floor of the Assembly next week, where most, if not all, will likely be included in the final document that goes to the governor.

And that, folks, is just the budget. Wait until these people start tackling the real special-interest bills.

I’m afraid Tony Earl is going to be despondent for months to come.

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