Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald introduced a bill Monday that would bar county executives from serving simultaneously in the Legislature, a move that could force a Democrat to decide between his lucrative executive position or a Senate seat.
Third-term Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris is running for Sen. Rick Gudex’s seat in the 18th Senate District. Gudex, a Fond du Lac Republican, announced in November he wouldn’t seek re-election, saying he got a job offer in the private sector.
If Fitzgerald’s bill passes and Harris wins the Senate seat, Harris would have to quit his $102,834-per-year job as county executive. He would make $50,950 plus an $88 per diem for each day spent in Madison as a senator.
Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, said Harris’ candidacy was the impetus for the bill. He said Harris’ decision to run raises questions about whether someone making six figures also should be allowed to collect an additional $50,000 from taxpayers every year.
“We’re definitely concerned about the double-dipping and want to address it directly,” Fitzgerald said. “I think people are getting tired of the idea of having an elected official with two different goals and the only reason they’re doing it is so they can draw two salaries.”
Fitzgerald said he was also concerned about the idea of Harris overseeing a county’s governmental services while also serving in the Legislature and voting on matters that have an impact on county governments.
Fitzgerald said Harris would “be conflicted on issues” related to county governments if he was elected and continued to work as county executive.
Harris seemed stunned when told about the bill Monday afternoon.
“I would then ask, is he going to demand all the other senators who have other employment to discontinue that?” Harris said. “Wow. This legislation could be very problematic.”
Harris isn’t up for re-election until April 2017.
He said he hasn’t thought about whether he would stay on as county executive if he became a senator, although he added that he committed to serve out his term when elected.
Harris pointed out that independent Bob Ziegelbauer served in the state Assembly while working as Manitowoc County executive from 2006 until 2013. Republican Paul Farrow resigned from the Senate last year several months after he was elected Waukesha County executive.
Fitzgerald said Farrow told his fellow Senate Republicans he would resign if he won the executive position. As for Ziegelbauer, his double service raised questions, too, Fitzgerald said.
“(Harris’) announcement that he’s running for state Senate raises questions again about whether this is proper,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sorry if he thinks people are picking on him.”
Fitzgerald has given his fellow lawmakers until Wednesday to sign onto the bill as co-sponsors, signaling he wants to move the legislation quickly.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he wants to finish that chamber’s work for the two-year session by the end of the month.
The bill would not ban lawmakers from also keeping other types of local government positions. Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, also works as mayor of the city, for example.
Novak said in an interview with the State Journal that he understands Fitzgerald’s concerns as county executives tend to make higher salaries than positions like Novak’s, which pays about $12,000 annually.
But he said holding both positions has helped “tremendously” in staying abreast of the issues that local officials and constituents want their state government to address. He said there was no conflict of interest in holding both positions.
“I hear their concerns and it kind of gives you the local perspective,” he said. “I have an understanding of local government, and being in this position helps you (in the Legislature).”
Fitzgerald said the bill didn’t need to address other positions because the salaries generally are not nearly as high as county executives.
When asked about public employees retiring, drawing a full pension, and being elected to the Legislature, Fitzgerald said the Legislature has incrementally addressed such situa- tions.
Associated Press reporter Todd Richmond and State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version misstated the first name of state Sen. Rick Gudex.]