Wisconsin legislator is no happy camper

Times Staff Writer

. -- Tired of watching fellow legislators bicker over the state budget and delay its passage for more than 100 days past a July 1 deadline, state Rep. Tom Nelson decided to stage a one-man protest.

He packed up his pajamas, an air mattress and a toothbrush and moved into the state Assembly chambers at the Capitol last week, setting up camp on the plum-colored carpet between his wooden desk and a marble pillar. Nelson vowed not to leave until the budget passed.

Friends think he’s lost his mind. Fellow Democrats shake their head in amusement at the 31-year-old’s stubbornness. GOP rivals call his action a publicity stunt.

But most people here agree that Nelson’s “live-in” reflects how circuslike the process of passing the state’s two-year, $58-billion budget has become.


Wisconsinites have peppered their lawmakers with pleading e-mails, and protesters have marched in the Capitol’s rotunda holding signs demanding “End the Wait.” “We should be ashamed of ourselves for taking so long,” said Nelson, a second-term legislator.

It has been a highly partisan fight.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, angry that the Republican-controlled Assembly blocked a budget endorsed by the Democratic-controlled Senate months ago, recently threatened a government shutdown.

Dozens of GOP Assembly members, vowing never to agree to some of Doyle’s more controversial measures - including a $400-million “bed tax” on hospitals and nursing homes, and a $1.25-a-pack tax hike on cigarettes -- signed on to online pledges never to vote for increasing taxes.


“Would it be nice to have a budget? Sure,” said Rep. Stephen Nass, a Republican who made such a pledge. “But we’re not in any rush to concede.”

Wisconsin is not alone in its delay. California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan also blew their budget deadlines.

“In most years, there’s one or two states that are late, because they are typically always late,” said Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“But this is unusual to have so many, and to have some be so incredibly late.”


In California, the $145-billion budget finally passed and was signed by GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in late August, more than seven weeks late.

In Michigan, the government shut down briefly on Oct. 1 because lawmakers did not pass a budget before the new fiscal year started. Legislators approved a one-month extension to resolve the $1.75-billion budget deficit, but with less than two weeks now left and the possibility of a second partial shutdown looming, Michigan legislators and Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm remain deeply divided over cutting spending and raising taxes.

Wisconsin lawmakers are often late passing the biennial budget. But the state constitution allows expenditures and services to continue at the previous year’s levels until a new budget is passed.

The fiscal year begins July 1; the state’s longest delay came in 1971, when a divided Legislature approved a budget Oct. 27. Since then, 11 of the last 18 budgets have been late to clear both chambers.


The current turmoil stems partly from legislators’ worries about next year’s election, said Mordecai Lee, a professor of government affairs at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

In the 2006 midterm election, the state GOP lost eight seats in the Assembly alone -- and control of the state Senate.

“Now the Democrats are afraid to give ground for fear of losing the advantage they’ve gained, and the Republicans are afraid to lose any more,” Lee said.

“Somehow, ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word in Madison.”


Rep. Nelson said he decided to camp out after a college student called to complain that his school wouldn’t release his financial aid because of the state budget uncertainty.

“He’s faced with dropping out of school because we all can’t agree,” said Nelson, who represents a largely Republican district that includes Kaukauna, about 100 miles northeast of Madison.

Nelson moved into the Capitol on Thursday morning. He vowed he wouldn’t leave until both chambers broke the deadlock.

So far, the living conditions have been as uncomfortable as the budgetary negotiations. His air mattress has a leak. The shower, one floor down, has no hot water. And the first night, after the Assembly chambers were supposedly locked, a pair of young political staffers sneaked in at 2 a.m. They woke him up long enough to snap his photograph and tell him to “keep up the good work.”


By late Friday, a reprieve seemed in sight. Gov. Doyle and leaders of the Senate and Assembly announced a deal. The new version of the budget, with fewer tax increases, is to come up for a vote this week.

Nelson simply reached for his pillow.

“I’ve heard this before,” Nelson said. “I’ll believe it when the votes are tallied.”