Our view: Gov. jobs push picks up some unrelated bills

Marshfield News Herald
January 20, 2011

One can debate the merits of Gov. Scott Walker's jobs bills. Forgiving income taxes on businesses for two years that locate to Wisconsin, cutting taxes and increasing economic development credits all point to job creation.
 
But what about some other items included in the governor's special session bills, labeled as job creation?

Christine Bremer Muggli, a Wausau attorney with an office in Marshfield, is the past president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice. She's been in Madison talking to lawmakers about the legislation before them. She said the bills in committee and coming up for votes have little to do with job creation. Even pegging them as tort reform, necessary to protect small businesses, is a stretch.

Wisconsin ranks in the top 10 for best business climate in terms of civil justice issues. It's not tort hell. Wisconsin juries are conservative in their judgments, Bremer Muggli said.

She pointed to a bill that would hide reports of abuse or neglect at nursing homes and keep such reports from being used in possible civil or criminal cases.

Does that create jobs? Maybe for large-scale businesses looking to build facilities in Wisconsin. It would make it easier to house more people without fear of being found out or punished for not providing adequate care.

Public outcry resulted in an amendment that would allow those reports to be discovered, but they still could not be used in a civil case. Unfortunately, the people about whom they would be written likely wouldn't be able to mount much of a case without them. Nursing homes typically care for the elderly, people with dementia or those who can't care for themselves. They can't speak up for themselves, either.

How about a portion of the bill that would limit a manufacturer's liability after 15 years? Most products don't last that long, so it would seem reasonable on the surface. Manufacturers wouldn't have to worry about lawsuits arising from old products past their usefulness.

Unless you work on a farm. Most farmers -- especially family farmers -- use equipment well beyond 15 years. The average age of a farm tractor is 20 years. The equipment is old and in use, sometimes by children.

Allowing makers of farm implements to not continue to seek to improve safety in its equipment could result in more injuries and deaths. It won't necessarily result in more jobs at farm equipment manufacturers.

One change would remove the ability for people to sue distributors of faulty products. If the Chinese-made stroller you purchase at a big-box retailer injures your child, under the new bill, you'd have to sue the manufacturer. Good luck finding that manufacturer, though, Bremer Muggli said. Trial attorneys find it increasingly difficult to track down the right manufacturer in China and then sue in Wisconsin courts. Current law allows distributors of defective products to be sued, with the understanding a store like Walmart, for example, is in a better position to find the manufacturer for recourse than an individual. Walmart can get reimbursement for its losses from the manufacturer.

Could local stores be hurt by product liability lawsuits? Considering it has been the case all along -- and local businesses haven't suffered -- the argument falls flat. Big retailers are the ones to benefit from the change.

The speed with which many of these pieces of legislation have been brought up, discussed and voted on raises our eyebrows. It seems similar to federal spending bills packed full of pork -- all those pet projects that wouldn't past muster if debated on their own merits.

If the governor or other lawmakers believe these proposed changes and others are necessary, then let's take time to discuss them. We would guess lawmakers haven't had time to read all of the legislation, let alone have time to ask constituents about it or get feedback from voters.

While expediting jobs creation is important, it shouldn't happen at the expense of debate on bills that will impact all residents of Wisconsin. If it's a good thing, it will pass. If voters decide it's no good, then let it fail. Don't push bills through without debate or discussion. You won't generate any goodwill that way, and you know how that ends up.

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