"It's Put Up or Shut Up"

On Nov. 3, state Rep. Mike Huebsch woke up “feeling like the Packers had won the NFC Championship game: It’s great, but now we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Huebsch, 45, easily won reelection, the ninth time that voters in the La Crosse area’s 94th Assembly District have sent him to Madison. But this time, the veteran lawmaker is keenly aware that it’s “put up or shut up” time for Republicans.

“I think our failure to do that in the past has led to a great deal of the mistrust our citizens feel about their government,” Huebsch says. “Voters do not want to feel that they’ve been misled.”

His legislative to-do list includes: a balanced state budget, a better business climate, lower taxes, more jobs, and restored voter trust in state government.
Voters have clearly lost confidence, according to the Wisconsin Citizen Survey, which was conducted this past March by WI’s publisher, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

•           Only 23% of the 600 likely voters surveyed thought our elected leaders were up to the task of solving the state’s $2 billion structural budget deficit.

•           Only 38% believed elected officials were working on issues important to the average Wisconsin family.

•           Only 39% found the state’s elected officials to be trustworthy.

•           Almost 60% said Wisconsin’s elected leaders only care about the wishes of lobbyists and the rich.

A June WPRI poll of 2,508 residents found that 61% were angry or frustrated with state government, compared to 34% who said they were content. Sixty-four percent said they never or only occasionally trust state leaders to do the right thing, compared with 35% who always or usually trust the government.

Such deep-felt voter cynicism helped power the growth of the Tea Party movement, which in turn helped the GOP regain power in Madison. But, Huebsch warns, the voters will turn on the GOP just as fast as they turned on the Obama administration if Republicans revert to “business as usual.”

Huebsch set himself on a lifetime course of public service at a young age.

He grew up in Onalaska (where his parents moved from Milwaukee when he was five), and he remembers how impressed he was with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln when he read their biographies in fifth grade. The political bug really bit when Huebsch was in eighth grade and his mother woke him up one morning to tell him that the middle school he attended was on fire.

“For a middle-schooler, finding out that your school had burned down is some of the best news you can get!” he recalls with a laugh. But the school was only two years old and had been built on an “open classroom” design, with pods ringing a central classroom area. Some school board members wanted to abandon the open-classroom concept, believing the design had helped the fire spread.

Huebsch was president of the student council, which conducted a survey of students and found that most loved the open-classroom configuration. So he was selected to present the findings to the school board.

“There were probably about 200 people in the audience,” he says, “but of course I was convinced there were about 5,000. I was very nervous, but I got up and gave my speech, and lo and behold, the school board kept the open-classroom design. It made a huge impression on me when I realized I could have that kind of impact.”

After high school, Huebsch spent four years at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., leaving the conservative Christian college nine credits short of graduation. “Basically, I ran out of money before I could write my senior thesis."

“The real irony,” he adds with another laugh, “is that they say I never completed another class: American Government 101. Anyway, I have promised my mother I will finish my degree someday, and I will.”

Huebsch returned to Onalaska in 1990 and went to work for a printing company, starting out as a press operator and ending up as vice president for sales just four years later.

He also served on the La Crosse County Board from 1992 to ’95. Ever since, he’s been dividing his time between Madison and the home he shares in West Salem with his wife, Valeria, and their two sons, Ryan and Brett.

Huebsch does not hide the fact that he is a social conservative as well as fiscal conservative, and he wishes those two factions of the Republican Party could work together better.

“The fiscal conservatives get so mad at the social conservatives,” he says. “That’s what happened in 2008 — the fiscal hawks stayed home, and the GOP was the big loser.”

He feels fortunate to have begun his legislative career when Republican hero Tommy Thompson was governor, noting that of the 99 members of the Assembly, only 20 were in office under Thompson.

Since then, he says, “We have had a tremendous growth in government. And politicians from both parties have done a tremendous job of shifting the blame to anybody but us. We say that the recession was caused by bankers acting like kids in a candy shop, but we weren’t much better.

“Think about it: The state employs 60,000 people, but not one of them has been laid off because of the recession. Tax collections are down, but government hasn’t been cut. Our leaders — both in Madison and in Washington — have demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of how the economy works.”

Evidence that the state needs to change direction includes the $2 billion structural deficit that the Doyle administration bequeathed to the new governor and Legislature. Because of the deficit, the Pew Center on the States rated Wisconsin’s budget woes among the 10 worst in the nation.

“Wisconsin people don’t have enough money for what government wants them to pay,” Huebsch says. “We have to cut spending; we simply cannot afford the government we’ve got.”

For the Legislature, Huebsch says, that means a return to basics, which he defines as education, public safety and helping the people who need it most. Everything else is negotiable.

This segues neatly into his next priority: growing the economy to provide more jobs. According to the Pew Center, Wisconsin has lost 140,000 jobs since the recession began, including about one-eighth of its manufacturing jobs.

“We’ve seen a decline in entrepreneurship in Wisconsin,” says Huebsch. “People are afraid to invest. But there are many ways we could encourage business growth. To start with, we could remove taxes on small businesses so their owners can reinvest their profits rather than sending them to Madison.”

Huebsch feels that in addition to improving the tax climate, the state needs to lighten the regulatory burden.

“We have a very zealous regulatory climate in Wisconsin,” he says. “I’m not saying we need to reduce the safety of our workplaces or products, but we are in competition with other states for job creation, and the bureaucracy always wants to make that more difficult.”

Given his experience, Huebsch is mentioned as a candidate for Secretary of Administration in the Walker regime. He downplays the possibility, saying there are lots of qualified candidates. But when asked what role the DOA secretary could have in improving public confidence in government, he quickly says, “Accountability.”

“We have to start running the state like a business, and that means holding people accountable.”

The state’s mismanaged computer project illustrates the problem. In 2005, Huebsch says, the Doyle administration told taxpayers it would cost $12.8 million to consolidate state computer servers. By the end of this past June, the cost had risen to $110 million, and the project still wasn’t finished.

“At some point, you have to cut your losses. That’s the kind of accountability you see every day in the private sector, but rarely in state government. You need to bring that same kind of lean approach to state spending.”

Huebsch believes that if Wisconsin Republicans keep their promises to rein in state spending, lower taxes and cut unemployment by improving the business climate, voters will feel renewed confidence in their leadership and keep them in office.

“But if we don’t, if we don’t learn from mistakes we made in the past, we deserve to lose,” he said.

Sunny Schubert is a Monona freelance writer and a former editorial writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.