Gov. Scott Walker’s quick exit from the presidential race and return to the state might help propel conservative legislation the Senate and Assembly will take up this fall. Here, Walker speaks Monday during an awards ceremony honoring State Patrol Trooper Treveor Casper, who was killed in a shootout with a bank robber.
Madison— The collapse of Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign could actually propel conservative legislation in Wisconsin over the next several months.
From ending all public money to Planned Parenthood to allowing state retailers to sell goods at cost or at a loss, lawmakers are considering proposals that conservatives have sought to pass in Wisconsin for years.
Bills before the Legislature this fall could put new limits on biomedical research and remake the state’s ethics and elections agency. The controversial bills could match scientists against activists opposed to abortion and big Wisconsin retailers like Kwik Trip of La Crosse against far bigger players such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
For Republicans in Wisconsin, Walker’s unsuccessful national race and low poll numbers at home don’t necessarily spell a setback for their priorities. The past two weeks have refocused the governor’s attention on the state and his conservative legacy here after months in which GOP lawmakers took the lead in the Statehouse.
“If (Walker) wants to re-establish himself and his presence in Wisconsin, he’s going to look for some conservative victories,” said Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank in Madison. “My guess is he’s going to continue to use his post as chief executive to reshape, reform and change the way government operates here in Wisconsin.”
There’s no guarantee that Walker and GOP lawmakers will agree on all of these proposals — the governor, for instance, has made clear that he hadn’t worked on or taken a position yet on a bill to repeal restrictions on retail pricing. But some of these proposals are already moving toward the governor’s desk.
For Democrats like Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse, that’s a bad thing. Republicans, they said, aren’t focused on addressing the deep economic unease that poor and middle-class families in Wisconsin are feeling.
“The things my colleagues in the majority want to talk about, I just shake my head,” Shilling said. “Every week I shake my head.”
The state’s Unfair Sales Act, also known as the minimum markup, is the latest long-standing law to be targeted by Republicans since they took control of Wisconsin government in 2011. The 1939 measure says that retailers can’t sell any product for a price below their cost and actually requires them to sell gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes for more than that cost.
The law says retailers must mark gas up 6% over certain costs or 9.18% over the average wholesale price, whichever is greater. But the law lets stations mark up gas less than that to meet competitors’ prices — a practice that supporters of the law say happens routinely and serves to blunt its effects.
It also allows certain other discounts, such as buy-one-get-one-free deals.
Competing studies on the effects of minimum markup have come to different conclusions about whether it raises or lowers the long-term cost of goods for consumers, but have generally agreed that for a gallon of gas the price effect would be a matter of pennies. But in the brutal business of commodity retailers, pennies are exactly what sellers seek to grab.
For instance, when the Meijer chain from Grand Rapids, Mich., recently brought its grocery and consumer goods stores into southeastern Wisconsin, the company faced an allegation that it had sought to attract customers by discounting goods too steeply.
Though much of the recent talk about the proposed repeal has focused on Meijer, proposals to scale back the Unfair Sales Act have been pushed in the past by even larger retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has said that the law limits its program to sell certain generic prescription drugs to consumers for $4 apiece.
“Prescription drugs is one area where customers can really see the impact of the Unfair Sales Act,” Walmart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said.
Garcia said Walmart seeks to offer the lowest prices in the marketplace but wouldn’t provide more specifics about its pricing strategy for competitive reasons.
The minimum markup repeal is opposed by a variety of business groups in the state, including the Wisconsin Grocers Association, the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the Cooperative Network, farm producers and some individual businesses such as the convenience store chain Kwik Trip.
The state’s most influential business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, hasn’t taken a position on the proposal.
Brandon Scholz, the chief executive officer of the grocers association, said he believed some businesses in his group would fail if the measure passes and takes effect quickly. He said it was “baloney, period” to think that the bill wouldn’t set off attempts by national retailers to try to undercut local competitors on price.
“Of course they will because if you can get rid of one of your competitors you can solve one of your problems,” Scholz said. “So you’ll have a price war.”
Matt Hauser, president of the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers Association, said a repeal might lead to lower prices in the short term but would eventually lead to less competition and higher prices. Hauser also believed some independent gas stations could fail following a repeal.
“Without a doubt some of the single store locations would have a problem,” he said.
Supporters of a repeal say that the minimum markup is an antiquated law that simply doesn’t reflect the modern reality of Internet retailers and the consumer as king.
“I consider the Unfair Sales Act to be unfair to consumers but also to businesses because they can’t truly compete,” said Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), one of the lead sponsors of the proposal.
Healy, the head of the MacIver Institute, argued that the repeal of the law wouldn’t lead to any large loss of businesses in the state, saying they would innovate and adapt to a change.
In February 2009, Chief U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa in Milwaukee froze enforcement of the Wisconsin law, ruling that it violated the federal Sherman Act, an antitrust law that bars restraint of trade between states.
Both then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and then-GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen were content to let the law die. But in September 2010, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals revived it after the state’s convenience store operators intervened in the case to get it reinstated.
But the markup repeal is just one potential fight for lawmakers. Here are some of the measures already before them:
■Several proposals gained momentum in the wake of controversial videos released by abortion opponents showing a Planned Parenthood official in California discussing the cost of providing fetal body parts for medical research.
The Assembly voted 60-35 last week to strip Planned Parenthood of about $3.5 million in government funding a year. Republicans are still working on separate legislation that would ban research using certain tissues from aborted fetuses.
■Restructure the Government Accountability Board, the state agency that oversees elections and ethics laws in Wisconsin. GOP lawmakers also plan to rewrite campaign finance laws for state candidates to put them in line with recent court decisions.
■Overhaul the state’s civil service system for ensuring that politics doesn’t intrude in the hiring and firing decisions for the majority of state workers.
The bill would eliminate the state’s civil service exams, replacing them with a résumé-based system for merit hiring; stop allowing longtime employees to avoid termination by “bumping” other workers with less seniority out of their jobs; and shorten by more than half the process for employees to appeal their dismissal or discipline.