By Tom Still
Madison Correspondent

MADISON — Gov. Jim Doyle’s signature line at last week’s Wisconsin Economic Summit came when he asked the pro-business crowd, “Would we be better off with 400 guns in this room, or 400 more entrepreneurs?”

The spontaneous applause from the 800 or so summit attendees answered Doyle’s rhetorical question — delivered with a hint of Reaganesque populism — and set up leaders of the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature for a tough question of their own:

At a time when people in Wisconsin worry most about fixing the economy, why is the Legislature seemingly fixated on lesser problems such as defining marriage and allowing people to carry concealed weapons?

A few hours after Doyle addressed the fourth annual summit, legislative leaders found themselves on the hot seat before the same crowd. Assembly Speaker John Gard, R-Peshtigo, and Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, R-West Bend, were joined by two Democrats on a panel that also included four of Wisconsin’s most prominent corporate CEOs. The ensuing discussion revealed growing impatience over the legislative process in Madison – but also a lack of understanding about how a legislative body works.

Doyle’s speech questioned legislative priorities and suggested that lawmakers are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Wisconsin citizens. At a time when Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, health insurance costs are hurting business and manufacturing jobs are being lost, shouldn’t the Legislature stay focused on those bread-and-butter problems?

Yes, replied Gard and Panzer, and we are. Both lawmakers told of efforts within their respective houses to pass economic development bills that would lower regulatory hurdles, unleash more venture capital, create a better-educated workforce and encourage entrepreneurs. But those bills aren’t as controversial as the “concealed carry” or “definition of marriage” bills, so they don’t grab as many headlines.

Gard noted that 81 of 102 bills passed in the 99-member Assembly this session have carried with 70 or more votes. The numbers are similar in the Senate. While there will always be partisan disagreements, the GOP leaders said, a majority of problems are resolved in a bipartisan manner.

That may be true, countered Assembly Minority Leader Jim Kreuser, D-Kenosha, but it’s the emotional hot-button bills that set the tone and which take the most time. “It’s a capacity problem,” Kreuser said. When committee and floor time is consumed by debates over who can carry guns and who can marry whom, it detracts from work on other issues.

That may be what irks business leaders the most, for it strikes them as lousy management when legislative leaders allow single-issue groups and their issues so much prominence. Then again, the Legislature doesn’t operate like a corporation – and it cannot. It’s a democratic body in which 132 people with differing opinions aspire to come together around a relatively few common problems. Helping Wisconsin’s economy is one such issue, and the most urgent.

As the big issues are debated, however, some second-tier problems will be aired if the Legislature’s committee system is working as it should. A few years ago, most Assembly and Senate committees were neutered because leadership kept a tight lid on what ideas could surface on the floor. It’s far from a free-for-all today, but there are signs of independent life. Back-benchers who had waited for years to bring forward a bill now have a fighting chance – although Republican rank-and-file have a definite edge over the minority party Democrats.

The same committee system that produces “concealed carry” laws is also writing bills that could help the economy. The Senate committee headed by Republican Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, and the Assembly panel chaired by Rep. Terri McCormick, R-Appleton, are prominent examples.

Legislative leaders have heard the message, loud and clear: Take care of real business before monkey business. In a representative democracy, however, not all priorities are universal.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.