Garey Bies Has Eyes Fixed On State Finances

In a battle of restaurateurs, Republican incumbent Garey Bies seeks to hold off Democratic challenger Dick Skare to win his fifth term in Madison.

I meet with Assemblyman Garey Bies in the spot he prefers, in the dry storage room in the back of his Sister Bay restaurant, the Carroll House. The restaurant is bustling the Monday morning after Sister Bay’s Fall Festival, catching folks as they make their way home, and Bies keeps his apron on in case he gets called to the line to help push plates of hash browns, eggs, and waffles off the grill.

The four-term Republican representative of the 1st Assembly District bought the restaurant a few years back. Prior to that he had served as Deputy Sheriff with the Door County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years.

Bies approach to government is not lost in nuance. When asked about his priorities he rarely wavers. While the hot-button issues may shift, his eye, he says, is on keeping taxes low and trimming government.

Garey Bies

“Government should be the least intrusive into people’s lives as possible but still provide the basic services,” he says. “I don’t think government should be involved in doing everything in your life. In today’s world we need a smaller but smarter government.”

“We have to be fiscally responsible,” he says of stewarding the public purse. “Spend the money like it’s coming out of your own pocket.”

His Republican colleague, longtime State Senator Robert Cowles of the 2nd Senate District, describes Bies as “a very even-tempered gentleman, not a showboat type” who can work with folks from both sides on an issue.

He supports a zero-tax-increase state budget and is a staunch supporter of revenue caps on local government, even as it earns him the criticism of municipal, county, and school officials. Those officials argue the caps are too tight and don’t even keep up with inflation, but what really irks most of them is having the state – which struggles with their own budget – telling them how to run their business. Bies doesn’t apologize.

“I think the revenue caps have worked for the taxpayer,” he says. “Maybe not for government, but for the taxpayer. I’m very frugal on how money is spent. Nobody has asked me to get rid of the caps.”

Madison will have at least a $1.6 billion budget deficit to deal with next session, one likely to grow larger with tax revenues slumping with the economic downturn.

“We’ve really lost some notable businesses, the paper mill and the GM plant in Janesville,” Bies adds. “Those are good-paying jobs for people that aren’t going to be paying taxes now.”

“Government should be the least intrusive into people’s lives as possible but still provide the basic services.”

When Bies first went to Madison in 2000, public school finance was a big issue in Northern Door. In the years since, the problem has spread to the majority of the state’s districts, forcing schools to go to referendum to meet funding needs. Still, no substantive change to the school funding system has gained traction in Madison, despite a special Governor’s Task Force.

“We need a new system because the whole thing was put in unfairly and caught some school districts on the short end,” Bies says. “The trouble is how you get money away from the [districts] who are getting it now. If the districts were reversed people wouldn’t want me voting to send our money somewhere else.”

Bies has not proposed a new system, but said he would support a straight per capita base that would send each school district $2,000 per child with the remaining state support applied to the existing formula.

“At least then you’d have some base amount,” he says.

While public schools grapple with levy caps, the state’s technical college system is exempt, often resulting in 10 percent annual budget increases with no taxpayer oversight. Bies has tried to change that, pushing the idea of putting tech schools on sales tax rather than property taxes, but he says the change gets little support in the legislature. He also questions the salaries of tech school teachers, some of whom he says receive $70 – 150 an hour.

“That’s falling on deaf ears,” he says. “The voters in Green Bay who make out from it far outweigh the voters we have in Door County. I’m still fighting for more reasonable way to pay for NWTC.”

In general Bies, who celebrated his 62nd birthday Oct. 26, would like to find savings throughout the state budget, but he mentioned Badger Care and Badger Care Plus as possibly two of the most efficient, productive programs Wisconsin administers.

“That’s where the dollars have gone where you’ve got the best return for the dollars spent,” he says.

Bies was also a big supporter of co-op care legislation, which has allowed for the creation of larger health insurance pools among farmers and small businesses, constraining costs.

He questions the surge in construction of hospital facilities around the state and nationwide.

“All those bricks and mortar have to be paid for,” he points out, with none of them providing care. “Then there’s the administration to run that. That needs to be looked at.”

In most industries an increase in the number of service providers, and the competition created, drives down costs, Bies said. “In health care we get all these new hospitals yet the costs keep going up.”

Bies says free-market solutions are still preferable to government-run care, and he opposed the Healthy Wisconsin proposal, saying it was far too expensive to take on.

“We need to improve transparency and drive down costs,” he says, though he admits health care is not his area of expertise. His self-acknowledged strengths are in highway and safety, and the courts and prison system.

He has touted the idea of requiring repeat drunk driving offenders to get pink license plates, which he says serves an important purpose even if it doesn’t become law.

“Those sort of things help put the issue in the limelight and keep the discussion going,” he says. “I’d like to see repeat offenders go to jail more quickly and longer. I always say a day of freedom is the only thing you can’t get back.”

He says the state should provide a different type of jail setting for non-violent criminals, one focused on job skills and rehabilitation to reduce recidivism and save tax dollars. An appointment by the Governor to serve on a council studying racial discrepancies in the criminal justice sector was a strong personal experience.

“I got enlightened a lot more,” he says. “We heard from families, and saw the situation from a much different perspective. It was a very good education for me, and I hope to continue my work in that area.”

The Great Lakes Compact was most public fight in the Assembly in recent years, and a major effort by environmental groups was required to push it through. Bies and many of his colleagues had concerns about its affects on manufacturers and stipulations that would have increased Department of Natural Resources control of water resources. Eventually it passed overwhelmingly, with Bies support.

“I had reservations about the DNR stuff in it originally,” Bies says, and he wasn’t comfortable supporting it until those provisions were cut. Jennifer Giegerich, of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said the measure got little support initially in the Assembly, with leadership coming in the state Senate. But Sen. Cowles, the compact’s major proponent, said Bies “played a critical role as the lead Republican in getting it done in the assembly.”

In late October, Bies picked up the endorsement of the Clean Wisconsin Action Fund, a leading state environmental organization that actively promoted the Great Lakes Compact. The group cited Bies vote for the compact, as well as his effort to ban the use of phosphorous to protect Wisconsin water, in their endorsement.