The Republican sponsor of a controversial bill to reduce child-support payments for wealthy individuals announced Tuesday he is withdrawing the bill from an upcoming committee hearing.
The State Journal also learned that the bill, Assembly Bill 540, was at least the second time Rep. Joel Kleefisch introduced legislation aimed at helping multimillionaire businessman and GOP donor Michael Eisenga reduce what he pays in child support — a minimum $15,000 a month payment for his three children.
Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, withdrew AB 540 one day after he vowed to amend the bill and other Republicans defended it.
The State Journal reported Friday that Eisenga helped write the bill, suggesting specific changes that would let him reopen his divorce settlement.
“After careful deliberation and consulting with my colleagues, I have decided to pull back AB 540,” Kleefisch said in a statement.
“While I am frustrated by the amount of misinformation the bill has encountered, I believe a fair and equitable child support system, one that fundamentally recognizes the value of both parents in the upbringing of a child, is an important issue and one that warrants serious conversation.”
Kleefisch declined to elaborate on his written statement, other than to say he plans to rework the proposal after consulting with judges and other affected parties. He also did not respond to an email and phone message left with his office Tuesday to discuss the other bill written to benefit Eisenga.
Drafting notes for that bill show Kleefisch met with Eisenga and Steve Foti, a lobbyist and former Assembly majority leader, on Dec. 21, 2010, to discuss changes to the law governing prenuptial or premarital agreements.
In August 2011, Kleefisch introduced Assembly Bill 235, which would force judges to uphold premarital agreements when it came to the division of property and maintenance payments, formerly known as alimony.
Madison attorney Michael Collins, who represented Eisenga’s ex-wife in the settlement, said the bill was an attempt to help Eisenga by forcing a judge to uphold portions of the agreement that favored Eisenga, including his former wife’s agreement not to seek alimony and to relinquish claims on his real estate and other property.
That bill received a hearing in the Assembly but failed to gain final passage in either house. The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law Section opposed AB 235, saying, among other things, that it was concerned the provision would be retroactive to all existing prenuptial agreements.
The drafting notes show Eisenga began working with Kleefisch on the bill after he filed for divorce and before a mediation session regarding the couple’s prenuptial agreement in May 2011, Collins said. The notes also show that the three discussed basing child support on “actual cost of raising a child” but that section was crossed out.
“Clearly it’s another attempt by Mr. Eisenga to tip the tables in his favor,” Collins said.
Eisenga, of Columbus, could not be reached Tuesday.
Bill defended, derided
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters Tuesday he didn’t ask Kleefisch to withdraw the child-support bill but agreed with Kleefisch’s decision to do so because questions about who helped write the bill and why became a “distraction.”
“Whether or not the bill was done for one person or multiple people, I think that’s all frankly a part of the discussion, but it should really be about the substance of the bill,” Vos said. “It shouldn’t be about how it was drafted or who it came from. That’s kind of the gotcha politics that far too many people practice.”
Vos said a review of the child-support system could come back at “a different date, maybe even next session.”
The bill has stirred debate since the State Journal reported that Eisenga requested specific changes to AB 540 that could help reduce his court-ordered child support payments.
The bill had called for exempting parents’ annual salaries above $150,000 from being counted when it comes to calculating child-support payments.
The proposal would have required judges to lower payments for anyone whose child-support order is 10 percent or more above the limit proscribed in the bill.
It also called for judges to equalize placement between parents unless there is “clear and convincing evidence” that it’s not in the child’s best interest.
Legislative drafting documents on that bill showed that Eisenga and his attorney, William Smiley of Portage, worked closely with Kleefisch and his office to ensure the bill was written so that Eisenga could reopen his child-support order. Kleefisch said it was not his intention to make it retroactive.
Eisenga has given the maximum amount in campaign donations to Kleefisch’s campaign since 2005, for a total of $3,500. He and his ex-wife also contributed $7,500 to the campaign of Kleefisch’s wife, Rebecca, who is the lieutenant governor, and $15,000 to the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker.
Democrats and attorneys for Eisenga’s ex-wife praised the decision to pull back the bill.
“Clearly the bill was not in the best interest of children. That should be the bottom line,” said attorney Richard Podell of Milwaukee.
“From my point of view, this bill had no real constituency,” Collins said. “It had a constituent. It was totally written by Mr. Eisenga for his personal agenda.”
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. said, “The process under which this bill was written prioritizes cronyism and political favoritism over policies that benefit children and allow them to live at the standard of living their parents enjoy.”
Rep. Tom Larson, R-Colfax, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Family Law, had defended AB 540 on Monday.
“There’s some value in having some hardship with life,” Larson said. “Even if I were a rich person, I probably would struggle a little bit to make sure my kids earned what they get. What’s the purpose of this money going to child support if it’s only going to create a child with maybe less values?”
Podell said the minimum $15,000-a-month payment was part of a larger settlement in which Eisenga’s ex-wife gave up claims to his extensive real estate and property holdings, aside from a house in Madison that records show is valued at $265,000, and Eisenga’s future earnings.
All three children attend private school paid for by his client, Podell said.
Eisenga is a developer and owner of several financial firms whose personal worth was estimated at $30 million when the couple divorced in 2010.
Podell said Eisenga continues to travel in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.