Last week, the Assembly Organization Committee met for first time in the new 2011 legislative session.
Their first order of business? Not jobs. Not economic development. Not education or taxes.
The first order of business of the committee – which consists of four Republicans and three Democrats and includes new G.O.P Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbottsford) and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) – was to authorize the hiring of a big Madison law firm (Michael, Best & Friederich) to work on redistricting for the Republicans at taxpayer expense.
This is the same law firm that then-Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen hired 10 years ago to redraw district boundaries to create fewer competitive state legislative districts (and more safe Republican seats). Jensen and then-Democratic State Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (who hired a different high-priced Madison law firm to do the same thing) soaked taxpayers for more than $2.5 million in legal fees to protect and enhance their own narrow, partisan interests in the 2001 redistricting process.
Is Speaker Fitzgerald intent on doing the same? What happened to fiscal restraint and financial responsibility to the taxpayers of Wisconsin?
There is a far better, fairer, less partisan and far less expensive way to do redistricting. Since 1980, our neighbor Iowa has had redistricting done by their non-partisan Legislative Service Agency. The cost to taxpayers? Aside from the salaries paid to the state employees charged with this responsibility – almost nothing. And the results there have been 1,000 percent preferable and fairer than have the very partisan redistricting plans, produced by partisan lawyers in the big law firms who charge premium rates ($300 an hour and up) paid to them with hard-earned taxpayer dollars – without the consent or knowledge of the citizens of Wisconsin.
Will Speaker Fitzgerald at least cap the legal fees paid to Michael, Best & Friederich? Will the hourly rates be reduced? Will there be legal representation for the Democrats? How much will that cost taxpayers? Will there be complete disclosure of the redistricting work done and the charges to Wisconsin taxpayers? Will the State Senate do the same thing? Will the new legislative leaders come to their senses and turn to a non-partisan and much less expensive entity to do this work and concentrate on jobs and the economy as they promised voters they would do?
The Government Accountability Board or the Legislative Reference Bureau, with a little training from their experienced counterparts in Iowa, could do the the job. And with much greater public confidence in their work and at a fraction of the cost.
Inquiring minds want to know. Answers, please!
Jay Heck is executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.