MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It was a tough year in the Wisconsin Legislature. And 2020 doesn’t promise to be much rosier.
Faced with a new Democratic governor, Republicans in control passed few bills of consequence in 2019 outside of the state budget.
They so angered one another that Gov. Tony Evers spewed four-letter words in the halls of the Capitol minutes after the Senate fired one of his Cabinet secretaries — an unprecedented move.
To end the year, Republicans were ticked off that Evers tried to force a meeting of the Legislature’s budget committee to approve money to combat homelessness. Republicans claimed the meeting was illegal and didn’t show up.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the Legislature plans to be in session only for a handful of days in 2020. With no budget to pass, and disagreement on major issues including expanding health care access, legalizing marijuana and gun control, Republicans plan to tackle less contentious issues such as suicide prevention and bolstering adoption. Bills resulting from a clean water task force are also coming in January. Republicans are also working on a property tax cut proposal.
Republican Speaker Robin Vos said he was intentionally focusing on issues that he hopes will have bipartisan support.
“I hope these are topics where we could show common ground that we can get things done,” Vos said. “We’re not Washington.”
Still, a lame duck session to weaken Evers before he took office set the tone for 2019, with little trust between the two parties.
“We find ourselves in this prearranged marriage, which the voters have put us in with the Democratic governor and Republican Legislature,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. “And there certainly is room for improvement when it comes to being effective.”
The Legislature met for just 14 days in 2019, far below the yearly average of 34 since 2003. Evers has signed 69 bills into law. Scott Walker enacted 370 during his last two years as governor. When Democrat Jim Doyle was governor and the Legislature was controlled by Republicans, he signed an average of 409 bills into law each two-year session.
The goal of Republicans, said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, is to minimize the time Democrats can point out issues they’re not tackling such as health care, Wisconsin’s farm crisis and gun control measures.
There are some areas of consequence where Evers and Republicans might find agreement.
One priority for Evers that Republicans have supported in the past is increasing funding for mental health services, particularly for young people. In the days following back-to-back shootings at two Wisconsin high schools that resulted in students being wounded by police, Evers said he wanted to work with Republicans to increase mental health services. He has yet to propose anything.
“I think it would be helpful if we sat down and crafted something that we could all agree on,” Evers said. “And we probably can.”
Evers and Democrats wanted Republicans to back universal background checks for gun purchases and a “red flag” law that would allow judges to take guns away from people determined to be a risk to themselves or others. But Republicans refused to debate the measures in a special session called by Evers.
In the face of that opposition, it’s a “rational pivot” for Evers to focus on mental health services, Hintz said.
“If that is sort of the beginning of common ground with Republicans, then we need to start there,” Shilling said. “I have long said to my Republican colleagues, you need to work on building small ‘t’ trust with the governor. We’re never gonna get the capital ‘t’ trust because that’s not the environment we’re in. But building small ‘t’ trust goes both ways.”
Shilling said she was hopeful lawmakers could work together on “small areas of bipartisanship.” That includes combating homelessness, addressing the “dark store” issue related to how empty businesses are taxed that is important to local governments, medical marijuana and improving mental health services for children.
Republican leaders have said medical marijuana won’t happen. And funding for homelessness has become more politicized after Evers tried, unsuccessfully, to force action in the budget committee. Vos said Republicans will have a package of bills related to crime and also something addressing how to expeditiously process sexual assault evidence kits to prevent a future backlog. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul has called on Republicans to pass a pending bill that has broad bipartisan support but remains stalled in the Assembly.
“The Republicans have seemed to become like this party of no, that they just want to obstruct the governor,” Shilling said. “They want to minimize his success.”
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