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Our View: Legislative act fails ‘smell test’

Last week it was reported that the state Senate voted to pay a $217,499 claim to J&L Steel and Electrical Services in Hudson (still pending in the assembly). The company said it was owed that amount from a bidding dispute for installing a visual call system at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in Chippewa Falls in 2011.

The bid called for a specific system. The Wisconsin Department of Administration didn’t approve the alternative system proposed in J&L’s bid. The Hudson company challenged this and claimed to have incurred added costs, including attorney fees, because of the state’s bid interpretation.

The company’s claim was rejected by the DOA and, later, by a state claims board. The later advised that the company had the option of making its case in court. However, despite the findings of two administrative boards, state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) introduced a bill to compensate the J&L.

Harsdorf said the company made a “very good case” for its claim and that its alternative bid would have resulted in a more cost-efficient, nurse-call system. J&L ended up installing the system called for by the original state bid.

It was also reported last week that J&L’s owner has donated campaign money to Harsdorf, Gov. Walker and another Republican lawmaker from Chippewa Falls.

Dictionary definitions give various meanings to the phrase “smell test.” One defines it as an informal method for determining whether something is authentic, credible or ethical by using one’s common sense or sense of propriety.

We think Harsdorf’s intervention on the bid process fails the smell tests on three counts:

1) She circumvented the established, administrative claims process – basically saying those professionals doing their jobs were wrong – and did so in an unusual manner by transforming the dispute into a legislative bill. All but two Senate Democrats opposed Harsdorf’s bill, saying the Legislature shouldn’t override decisions of the claims board.

2) She circumvented the routine process on behalf of a campaign donor. This one compounds No. 1. You can say your efforts are on behalf of a constituent’s “very good case,” but a natural response would be: “Really? Would you have acted in this unusual manner on behalf of a constituent who had donated to the political campaigns of Shelly Moore (Harsdorf’s August 2011 opponent) and Tom Barrett (Walker’s summer 2012 gubernatorial opponent)?”

3) She wanted to help a constituent save money, which is laudable, but in doing so she is asking her other constituent taxpayers – us -- to footing the company’s $217,499 bill.

Over many years Harsdorf, as a Wisconsin assemblywoman and a senator, has built a reputation for honesty, openness and integrity. And, maybe there is some reasonable explanation for this episode; on the surface, however, it appears to have put a nick in her reputation.