Monday, June 27, 2005

Mr. Irrelevant: Mike Ellis Battles Oblivion

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Mike Ellis is about to step into the most important role of his political career. If the Neenah Republican blows it, he will be another forgotten name in the back of legislative reference books. If he rises to the occasion, however, Ellis could emerge as one of the most significant figures in this state's political history -- a statesman poised for bigger things, perhaps even the governorship. -Wisconsin State Journal Editorial, June 25, 1995

Perhaps you recall the proud day that your family finally got rid of that outdated betamax video tape player, and finally moved up to an expensive, state of the art VHS player. If you do, then you probably also recall the last valuable contribution State Senator Mike Ellis made to state government. Once standing at the precipice of Wisconsin immortality, Ellis now wanders the halls of the Capitol a shell of his former self, struggling to maintain his media presence and legislative relevance.

Ellis, the GOP leader who lost Republican control of the state senate twice in the span of three years in the late 1990s, keeps himself in the public eye by catering to the media on the two issues it responds to the most – campaign finance reform and criticizing other Republicans. Ellis hasn’t written a piece of legislation not dealing with campaign finance reform since 1997, when he authored three bills that never received a vote.

Since most polls show that campaign finance reform in between “better restroom signs” and "tastier ketchup" in terms of public priorities, Ellis’ constituents continue to elect him solely for the privilege of occasionally reading about him in the Appleton Post-Crescent. In the last few years, Ellis has sworn off substantive legislating in favor of an agenda that serves his true constituency – himself and the handful of his old buddies in the Madison media market. A Lexis-Nexis search of the past decade shows that Ellis has appeared in the nutty liberal Madison Capital Times more frequently than either the Wisconsin State Journal or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, mostly in articles written by the petrified Matt Pommer, who may often be seen hiding under Ellis’ toupee to get a scoop. Gag-inducing headlines such as “Ellis is the Real Leader (May 9, 2002), “Too Bad Ellis Isn’t Running for Governor,” (September 5, 2002) and "Why Not Governor Ellis?" in the Isthmus can be seen regularly.

So why would a pro-life fiscal conservative from the Fox Valley be so revered by Wisconsin’s “progressive” newspapers? Much of it has to do with Ellis’ reading right out of the John McCain “Playbook For Appearing Relevant.” Chapter one urges devotees to push for campaign finance reform – an issue whose only constituency is editorial boards, who gain a monopoly on political speech if “reform” were to pass. Ellis admits his love of this issue is a recent event.

In 1997, Senator Lynn Adelman authored a bill that achieved much of what Ellis is pushing for now – higher income tax checkoff, more public funding of campaigns, regulation of issue advertising, and a ban on fundraising during the state budget. In November of 1997, Minority Leader Ellis cut a deal with Democratic State Senator Gary George to kill Adelman’s bill when Majority Leader Chuck Chvala brought the bill to the floor for a vote. Clearly, Ellis’ devotion to clean elections occurred about the time he lost the majority, was dumped from leadership, and lost his access to reporters’ microphones.

Chapter Two of the McCain Wannabe book tells legislators to criticize Republicans for not being fiscally conservative. Ellis recently has made a career of criticizing the GOP for the “structural deficits” their budgets have produced, complaining about increased spending in those budgets, opposing property tax freezes on state and local government, and opposing new taxes. Ellis voted against the 2003-05 biennial budget for these reasons, and stands poised to vote against the 05-07 budget this week.

Ellis' rhetoric sounds good to a fiscal conservative, if anyone actually thought he believed what he was saying, given many of these concerns seem to be new to him. As majority leader in 1995, Ellis crafted and voted for a budget that increased general purpose spending by 17% over the biennium, and left the state with a $1.5 billion structural deficit for the 1997-99 biennium. As minority leader, Ellis voted for the 1997-99 budget, and then crafted the budget adjustment bill later that session as majority leader that increased spending by 7.4% over the biennium and again left the state with a $1.5 billion structural deficit (all numbers according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau).

In a recent Appleton Post-Crescent story, Ellis cited the structural deficit as a primary reason he was voting against the 2005-07. Total structural deficit in the new GOP budget: $863million.

In separate interviews in 2003, Ellis complained that he wouldn’t vote for any budget that increased the structural deficit, froze property taxes, or increased spending. Yet when Doyle introduced his 2005-07, which does all three, Ellis enthusiastically endorsed the plan.

On the issue of freezing property taxes, Ellis has been consistent. He only favors a freeze on local governments when enough state spending is provided to make the freeze virtually meaningless. Ellis’ answer to higher property taxes has always been more state spending to offset property tax reductions, which runs contrary to his hard line position on reducing state spending. Instead, he urges cuts in programs that could be politically suicidal for vulnerable members of the senate GOP caucus (eliminating 5-year old kindergarten, for instance). In fact, much of the 17% state spending increase in 1995-07 that Ellis supported was to fund two-thirds of school districts, and assuredly contributed substantially to the structural deficit problem the state is in today. After that budget vote, Ellis criticized Tommy Thompson for vetoing a roughly 4% freeze on local governments, calling it “a bad veto, intellectually.”

Ellis has also been critical of tax increases, while he as leader supported a 3.5 cent gas tax increase to fund transportation projects. In May of 1995, when Senator Carol Buettner and Representative John Gard proposed a 50 cent per pack cigarette tax hike, Ellis called it a “courageous, constructive and pragmatic” plan. Ellis has also authored a school financing plan that would impose a state property tax to pay for education, at a rate that would be a significant property tax increase for many citizens throughout the state.

Today, Ellis continues to suck up to the sycophantic media by serving as their lobbyist and pulling down the party he once led. Once a brilliant and constructive legislator with a bright political future, he is now resigned to a life as a curmudgeonly back bencher who stays alive only by sucking the life out of the same group he once led. His obstructionist vote against the budget this week is his means to remain relevant. By voting no, he ensures that the press calls will still come, even though his usefulness has long passed. Ellis’ recalcitrance is an affront to Republicans across the state hoping to see long-lasting GOP majorities – after all, losing those majorities is what he knows best.

One day, Ellis will walk out of the Capitol as an elected official for the last time, remembered for what could have been and forgotten for what was.