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The Frugal Three: Wisconsin Legislators Reject Annual Pay Increase

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In a year that has seen rising unemployment, a volatile stock market, and increasing state and federal budget deficits, the backlash on talk radio and in print against legislators in D.C. and at state capitols for receiving pay raises has been pronounced. The idea that the nation’s legislators who are presiding over failed policies should be rewarded with a pay raise is a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow.

While the pay raises amount to only the smallest fraction of governmental expenditures, some legislators have taken this opportunity to reject their raise, and return that portion back to the government.

In Wisconsin, three of the state’s 132 members of the Assembly and Senate have done so thus far: Democratic Representative Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc (Assembly District 25), Democratic Senator Jon Erpenbach of Waunakee (Senate District 27), and Republican Dan Kapanke of La Crosse (Senate District 32).

Wisconsin, like its neighbor to the West, faces a two-year budget deficit in excess of 5 billion dollars, and its legislators received a pay raise of 5.3 percent to put their annual salary just $57 shy of $50,000 per year – the ninth highest in the nation.

Are the actions of these three legislators meant to raise a serious policy point about governmental accountability, or are they making a shrewd political move (or both)?

Smart Politics cannot assign motive to the Frugal 3, but we can look at the competitiveness of these legislators’ seats, and determine whether this gesture may be of some political use to them the next time they are up for reelection.

Rep. Ziegelbauer has been elected to the Assembly nine times dating back to 1992, but has faced Republican challengers only two times during that span – in 1992, when he won Democrat Vernon W. Hoschbach’s open seat by 22.4 points, and in 2006 when he defeated Paul Tittl by 12.4 points. Ziegelbauer ran unopposed in 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2008. In 1998 he defeated a candidate from the U.S. Taxpayers party by 93.6 points. In short, Ziegelbauer represents a safe Democratic district.

Three-term Democratic Senator Jon Erpenbach first won election to the 27th Senate District in 1998 by 13.2 points, filling the open seat left by Democrat Joseph S. Wineke. Since then Erpenbach has not faced a challenger in his reelection victories in 2002 and 2006. His seat would appear to be extremely safe, should he run for a fourth term in 2010.

Republican Senator Dan Kapanke, however, has been involved in three extremely tight Senate races in the 32nd District. In 2000, Kapanke lost by just 2.1 points to Democrat Mark Meyer. In 2004, Kapanke won an open seat race by 5.1 points against Democrat Brad Pfaff, and then won an even narrower 2.9-point victory in 2008 against Democrat Tara Johnson. The counties (or portions thereof) that comprise the bulk of the 32nd District voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008: La Crosse County (60.9 percent), Crawford County (62.5 percent), Vernon County (60.1 percent), and Monroe County (53.2 percent). Kapanke's decline of the pay increase may thus gain him some favor with political independents - a key component of his constituency for the reelection of a Republican in a bluish district.

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