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Legislators rush to the finish line

By Matt Pommer

Never watch the making of sausages or laws, according to the old quip.

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The admonition especially applies in the final days of the Wisconsin legislative session as legislators and the 751 licensed lobbyists worry about keeping their jobs for the 2011-2012 biennium.

“It’s sometimes called the ‘Capistrano syndrome,’” retired lobbyist Kirby Hendee once explained. “Like the swallows they like to come back.”

At this writing, more than 1,600 bills have been introduced in the Legislature, including many in the last few weeks. Traditionally, the late entries have little chance of becoming law. Yet often, a new bill is accompanied by almost breathless press releases about its alleged importance.

History shows that a high percentage of legislators seeking re-election will win another term. That doesn’t mean the minority party won’t become the majority party after the next election. Just a few changes can make that happen.

The lobbyists’ situation is different. Each has to convince his clients he has achieved or defeated something in the last two years. If the client is impressed, the lobbyist too will be back in the Capitol in 2011.

The late John Lawton, a lobbyist for labor groups, told the tale of a lobbyist for an employer group who asked a favor in the waning days of the legislative session: Would Lawton introduce a pro-labor bill?

“You’re opposed to this,’” Lawton said.

“I know, I know,” replied the other lobbyist, “but I’ve got to kill something this session.”

Hendee said lobbyists benefit from the introduction of bills that would seem to demolish established interests.

“Lobbyists thrive on panic and confusion,” he said.

The final weeks of a legislative session are full of confusion. Many bills are on a fast track to a vote. The legislators, and yes, the press corps, have no way of knowing what is in all of the bills. Sometimes it will take months to find out the effect of hurried legislation.

It’s not uncommon for legislators to end up on both sides of a bill. The late state Rep. Harvey Dueholm, D-Luck, initially voted against a bill to increase penalties for shoplifting. But he later voted for the bill on final passage.

Republicans delighted in calling attention to his inconsistency and asked for an explanation.

“I didn’t get one call of thanks from a shoplifter,” he replied.

An 1866 New York court decision seemed to speak to the chaos of the legislative process, especially in the final days.

“No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session,” according to the court decision.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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