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Fitzgerald, other ex-speakers lobby for vouchers

Jan. 22, 2013
 
J. Fitzgerald
J. Fitzgerald

MADISON — Advocates for expanding school vouchers in Wisconsin have hired three former Republican speakers of the state Assembly to help make their case, a sign of political firepower on a contentious issue that has renewed calls to ban the increasingly common practice of moving directly from the Legislature to lobbying.

Jeff Fitzgerald registered earlier this month to lobby for School Choice Wisconsin, just days after his term in the Assembly ended. Another former Republican Assembly speaker, John Gard, also is registered as a lobbyist for the school choice group. The president of School Choice Wisconsin is Jim Bender, a former legislative staffer who worked for Fitzgerald.

A third Republican former speaker, Scott Jensen, is a registered lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, another group that supports expanding vouchers.

The proliferation of former Assembly speakers on the school choice issue shows how advocates for expanding vouchers plan to focus on this year’s legislative session to push for changes. Gov. Scott Walker already supports vouchers and has pledged to expand the program, but he hasn’t said yet exactly what he will propose.

Fitzgerald’s decision to become a lobbyist, after serving 12 years in the Legislature including the past two as speaker, led to renewed calls by Common Cause Wisconsin for a ban on lobbying by lawmakers immediately after they leave office.

Common Cause supports a one-year “cooling off” period between when a legislator leaves office and decides to begin lobbying. But the government watchdog group hasn’t been able to find a lawmaker to introduce such a bill since 2005.

“I think this is a problem that just feeds cynicism to citizens and makes them feel as if legislators are using public service as a stepping stone,” said Common Cause Wisconsin director Jay Heck.

Heck said it was “pretty amazing” that three former speakers are now lobbying on school choice issues.

“I’ve never seen that,” Heck said. “I wonder if the three of them will get together on a conference call and plot strategy.”

Fitzgerald was a central figure in getting passed Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal that effectively ended collective bargaining for public workers. He also ran for U.S. Senate last year, after deciding not to seek re-election in the Senate, but came in fourth in the Republican primary.

Fitzgerald, who identifies himself as president of Fitzgerald Consulting, also is registered to lobby for Alliant Energy and American Traffic Solutions.

He did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Bender, the president of School Choice Wisconsin who worked six years as an aide to Fitzgerald in the Legislature, defended hiring him as a lobbyist.

“Changing the status quo in education requires a high level of trust and a stiff spine,” Bender said in a statement. “With John Gard in Green Bay and Jeff Fitzgerald in Madison, we have two strong supporters on the issue that won’t back down when the headwinds start blustering.”

Fitzgerald, Gard and Jensen served as speakers 11 of the past 15 years in the Assembly. Republican Mike Huebsch was speaker in 2007 and 2008 and joined Walker’s administration in 2011 as head of the Department of Administration. Democrat Mike Sheridan, who was speaker in 2009 and 2010, registered as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO in September but has not yet registered this year.

The fight over expanding school choice beyond Milwaukee and Racine is expected to be one of the most hotly debated topics in the Legislature this year.

Last week Republican Senate President Mike Ellis and Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said they would oppose automatic expansion of vouchers without residents in the affected school districts first approving them through a referendum vote.

Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the Senate, but losing two Republican senators would make it more difficult to get any measure passed there. Walker is expected to propose voucher expansion in his budget, which would make it easier to pass as part of a larger spending package instead of on its own.

Democrats historically have objected to vouchers because they argue it siphons money away from public schools and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education. Supporters say it provides an alternative for parents of children in failing schools.

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