MADISON (WKOW) -- They've debated a statewide smoking ban since 2005. Democrats wanted it. Republicans didn't.
"They were so log-jammed, they were paralyzed," said Mike McCabe, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, describing the check and balance system that often resembled gridlock at the state Capitol.
Now, with the Democrats in full control at the Capitol when the upcoming session begins next week, issues like a smoking ban could be a breeze this time. "This legislature is far more likely to act on that than the last few legislators," said McCabe.
"It's one of the few things that doesn't cost the government very much," said UW political science professor Charles Franklin, who agreed a smoking ban bill is likely to resurface since there are no longer enough Republicans to block one.
For the same reason, an increase in the state's minimum wage of $6.50 is expected to be up for a vote again.
There is still a question whether other Democratic plans can pass, such as universal health care. The Healthy Wisconsin bill had a pricetag of $15 billion. That's a tough sell in a recession, and in a state with a $5.4 billion hole in its budget.
"My bet is they don't act on a comprehensive health care reform package, at least not early in the session," said McCabe, who said lawmakers will likely see how President-elect Barack Obama and the upcoming new Congress tackles health care reform first.
As for that budget, lawmakers must fix it with a mix of cuts, and new sources of revenue. Not an enviable job, even when there's one-party rule. "That's a hell of a dilemma," said McCabe. "This legislature has got its work cut out for it."
"I think one of the issues that Democrats are going to have to face is that if they're painful cuts, or painful tax increases, how do they do that without becoming a punching bag for the Republicans," said Franklin.
A spokesperson for new Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan told us the Janesville-area representative's priorities, along with the budget, will be worker retraining programs, passing tax credits and grants for the renewable energy industry, and autism insurance mandates.
Lawmakers are expected to work on repairing the budget sometime in February, after Governor Jim Doyle issues his state of the budget address.
As for the Republicans in both houses, McCabe said they will play the role of vocal minorities and watchdogs. If the Democrats make too many mistakes, the Republicans will remind voters of that in two years.