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Rhoades takes major role in state budget preparation

When Kitty Rhoades was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly, she was asked to fill out a form listing five legislative committees she would like to serve on.

She wrote "Finance" five times.

A Republican Party leader called for clarification, saying "Half of the group said you didn't understand (how to fill out the form). The other half said you did."

Rhoades said she most definitely knew what she was doing. As a "mature freshman," she didn't have time to wait for other people to retire before she got the assignment she wanted.

Four years ago, Rhoades was named to the Joint Committee on Finance. This month she was named co-chair of the powerful budget committee.

Joint Finance, composed of eight legislators from the Assembly and eight from the Senate, reviews legislation involving state revenues. Its chief responsibility is to review and revise Wisconsin's $52 billion biennial state budget, which the governor submits at the beginning of each odd-numbered year.

The budget bill is the only bill the Legislature must adopt, and the work on it seems never ending, said Rhoades.

"I'm living proof of 'be careful what you ask for,'" she said Monday morning just before heading for another week in Madison. She is the first Republican woman ever to co-chair Joint Finance.

"I had to dig to find out how to be the first at something," she laughed, pointing out that a couple of Democratic women have co-chaired the committee.

Rhoades, 55, whose home is in Hudson, is married with three children. She earned her bachelor's degree from UW-River Falls in 1973 and her master's from Illinois State in 1978. She has worked as a teacher, small business owner and chamber of commerce president.

She was first elected to the Assembly in 1998 and has served there for the past eight years.

"That's the longest I've held any one job," she joked.

Developing trust

Rhoades said out-state lawmakers, who spend their weeks at the capital, do the jobs very differently than those who go home every night. Those who stay spend more time with their colleagues.

"I think you treat people differently when you know them personally," she said. "Getting to know people is critical."

That's a message she will pass on this year as she, for the third year, helps train new legislators.

"You've got to have that working relationship," said Rhoades. "You don't always agree, but you at least disagree in a different tone."

Early in her term a group of Democratic senators became her best friends.

While they didn't always see eye to eye on the issues, that trust often helped her accomplish goals, said Rhoades.

She used as an example her push for a law to have Sudafed and similar over-the-counter medications stored behind pharmacy counters. While people in western Wisconsin saw the risk of allowing easy access to drugs used to make methamphetamine, it wasn't as large an issue in other parts of the state, where lawmakers saw only inconvenience to consumers.

A bipartisan effort got the new law through in record time, and Rhoades attributes some of that to her relationships with legislators from the other party and from other parts of the state.

"We knew each other well enough for them to respect that I wouldn't ask for this if I didn't really need it," she said.

Rhoades also said that when she rewrote the health care part of the last budget, it passed the Joint Finance Committee on a vote of 16-0.

When she was first appointed to an Assembly health care committee, Rhoades made sure she had contact with an administrator back home who works with each type of program the committee oversees. She used those administrators as sources of information and as sounding boards.

At least then, she said, she could come home, look them in the eye and say, "I did the best I could for you with what we had."

'The debate starts'

While Gov. Jim Doyle hasn't presented his new budget proposal yet, Rhoades predicts a long struggle that will end in a conference committee before a document is approved.

After Doyle presents his budget, it will go to the Fiscal Bureau, which will turn it into a workable document.

"And then the debate starts," said Rhoades. She and co-chairman Sen. Russ Decker will have to agree on how many public hearings will be held and where they will be held.

"Even that becomes contentious," she said.

Rhoades is not happy with the way the budget hearing process has worked in the past. Even though the committee holds hearings around the state, most of those who testify are paid lobbyists or public employees and not simply state taxpayers as intended.

The hearings have become marathons. A suggestion was made to hold them in the evenings, but when people arrived at 3 p.m., saw the sign-up sheets and realized they had no chance of being heard before 10 p.m., they left, said Rhoades.

One suggestion is to issue movie-style tickets when people arrive, limiting speakers to a few minutes and giving them an idea of when they will be heard.

"It really is supposed to be about hearing from constituents, not lobbyists," said Rhoades.

As for budgets from state departments, she says upfront that she is braced for two things: Agencies that ask for more money, get more than they got last year and then complain their funding was cut; and agencies that ask for funding, promising it is a one-time request.

"You've got to pay your bills first before you look at new programs and new spending," said Rhoades. "We really need to be concerned about sustainability ... are we going to be able to continue to provide?"

She added, "The one thing I've learned is that there's no such thing as one-time spending."

'Never less money'

Rhoades said most debate and disagreement will focus on funding for three main services: Education, health care and transportation.

"There has never been less money for K-12 than the year before -- never," said Rhoades, who is tired of hearing that the state isn't spending enough on education.

"Wisconsin has been No. 1 or 2 on ACT (test scores) for 17 years," Rhoades. "That's failing?"

She said 46 cents of every state tax dollar goes to K-12 education. That, said Rhoades, shows both a financial and philosophical commitment to schools.

"I have always said we have good schools, and we have to tell our kids that," she said. "I think we have to stop this negative message."

Providing adequate affordable health care isn't so much a partisan issue as is the issue of how it is done, said Rhoades.

"Regardless of your political party, you want to solve that problem," she said. The debate is over how to solve it.

While some firmly believe that universal health care is the solution, "I passionately believe it is not," said Rhoades.

Just reading and assimilating budget documents is a challenge in itself, said Rhoades. She said committee members often don't get papers until 3 p.m. and then have the night to familiarize themselves with the content.

To make the task a little easier, her team of six GOP representatives divides the issues, with each developing expertise in one area. Hers is Medical Assistance.

She also has 52 "budget buddies," members of the Legislature who aren't on Joint Finance, and tries to keep them informed on budget progress.

Those others then have someone to call for information. Rhoades said she is happy to help because she appreciates the help she had gotten.

"I know I sure relied on a lot of people helping me get answers and finding answers."