How The Concrete Lobby Is Killing Us

Ask a retired legislator about the Department of Transportation and you’ll get an earful. “They’re like our version of the Defense Department,” a longtime Assembly Democrat once told me, painting the DOT as a black hole for government funding.A “bipartisan failure” is how a retired Republican state senator described the Legislature’s biennial capitulation to road builders. And both of these observations were made more than a decade ago, back before the spending on highways went really crazy. Former governor and fiscal liberal Tommy Thompson considered himself a builder, and he loved funding new or expanded highways, even if no one…

Ask a retired legislator about the Department of Transportation and you’ll get an earful. “They’re like our version of the Defense Department,” a longtime Assembly Democrat once told me, painting the DOT as a black hole for government funding.

A “bipartisan failure” is how a retired Republican state senator described the Legislature’s biennial capitulation to road builders. And both of these observations were made more than a decade ago, back before the spending on highways went really crazy. Former governor and fiscal liberal Tommy Thompson considered himself a builder, and he loved funding new or expanded highways, even if no one was clamoring for them.

The result can be seen in statistics in last week’s Journal Sentinel showing that highway spending went up 109% since 1990, compared to a 32% increase for the University of Wisconsin System and 11% for state parks. If anything, these figures understate the rise in highway spending. Thompson used magical budgeting, pushing transportation costs far into the future with bonding and borrowing. By 2003, the Department of Transportation was estimating that its annual payment on the debt-service for its borrowing would exceed its revenue bond proceeds from fiscal year 2008-’09 onward.

Critics have for years questioned whether all of this highway construction was needed. Steve Hiniker , head of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, recently assailed it in the JS as pork barrel spending. Road construction is a very concrete way for legislators to show they delivered for their district.

As an added incentive for legislators, the many companies that do construction, along with the unions that want the work, deliver plenty of campaign donations to both parties. The so-called “concrete lobby” has tremendous clout in the capital.

Gov. Doyle appointed a union leader, Frank Busalacchi , as Secretary of Transportation, and Busalacchi announced last week that highway funding is in a crisis. A miffed Doyle pointed out that highways just got a 16% increase in the budget.

Legislators who loudly proclaim the need for constitutional revenue limits might want to start with their own actions and consider how much they spend making the concrete lobby happy. The transportation budget looks like a time bomb that will explode at some point in the future. In that sense, Busalacchi is dead right.

Don’t Cry for Scott, Chamber of Commerce

It’s remarkable how long the whining has gone on for Scott Jensen , the convicted criminal and former legislator. Conservative bloggers like Jessica McBride , who otherwise defend the rule of law, argued that it didn’t apply in this case. And WTMJ radio talker Jeff Wagner lamented aplenty, but he’s an entertainer, not a journalist, remember, so he need not be balanced or even thoughtful.

But what are we to make of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s monthly newsletter, which quoted Wagner’s defense of Jensen that the legislator hadn’t taken “so much as even a nickel of taxpayer money” and that Jensen had been singled out for jail time while others who exploited a corrupt system were ignored. “Wagner, we feel, opined fairly” on this issue, the newsletter declared.

But Jensen wasn’t just one among many, he was the Assembly speaker and lead Republican overseeing the campaigning by state-paid legislative assistants, just as former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was the lead Democrat. They were the most obvious and most important people to be prosecuted.

As for not spending a nickel, the taxpayers have been charged millions of dollars over the years to pay for the salaries of caucus workers who labored almost exclusively on campaigning. Cleaning up the caucus system ends this and saves us millions in future taxes that would have been spent.

The caucus system, moreover, corrupted the democracy by anointing a group of insiders who handpicked the candidates and targeted campaign dollars to them, in effect using our taxes to help decide who should represent us. That this system was bipartisan made it twice as expensive and doubly repellent.

Does the Association of Commerce staff seriously believe it is serving its members by spreading this nonsense by Wagner? Not every MMAC member is a Republican. And of those who are, isn’t it likely many would be outraged by how their taxes were spent to maintain this obviously questionable system?

The newsletter is written by Don Dooley, a former Milwaukee Journal reporter who goes way back and has had interesting recollections about covering Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. But did he write this or was this paragraph inserted by Steve Baas , an MMAC staffer who was a longtime aide to Jensen?

As a February profile of MMAC Executive Director Tim Sheehy noted, Sheehy has often hired Republicans for staff positions. But the organization surely doesn’t want to be seen as an adjunct of the Republican Party, much less a defender of corrupt party members.

Was I Wrong About Charlie Sykes?

In response to last week’s column suggesting radio talkers Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes were embarrassingly pro-Walker against Mark Green , Sykes wrote to call my piece “unusually clueless.” He went on to say “it’s true Belling went all out for Walker. I did not.”

If you did a run-down of how often he had each candidate on his radio show, Sykes said, it would be “damn close to dead-even.” This “frustrated the Walker folks a bit because they expected (like you) that I would continue to tout him,” Sykes added.

Indeed, prior to the race, Sykes was a non-stop promoter of Walker, as Walker himself once put it. Online, Sykes would run letters from Walker signed “Scott,” just to let us know how close they were. And as soon as “Scott” withdrew from the governor’s race, Sykes devoted his entire Sunday morning TV show to an interview with Walker, to let us know the county exec’s future plans, whether he takes the garbage out at night and so on.

So I apologize: Sykes was actually darned close to dead-even handling the Green/Walker competition. Doyle, of course, would be a different matter. Expect more such GOP-approved imbalance, with Sykes canonizing Green and fawning over Walker. In the world of talk radio, that’s called entertainment.

Short Takes



  • Why was Scott Walker’s decision to withdraw from the race such a poorly kept secret? Because as soon as the decision was discussed internally, key Republicans advising Walker all rushed to connect to the Green campaign and jump on the winning bandwagon. Naturally, the word then got out and Walker had to rush to make an announcement before the media beat him to it.




  • One of the least understood changes in state law in the last decade overhauled the juvenile justice code to make it tougher. Unwittingly, the 1996 reforms have resulted in the records of many juveniles becoming public, even juveniles who are not ultimately charged in adult court. This is criminalizing many juveniles in a way that legislators probably never intended. Call it the law of unintended consequences. There’s more about this in the April issue of Milwaukee Magazine .

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