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Wisconsin's new legislative session may be like its last one: filled with gridlock and inaction

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 1/4/2021 Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Van H. Wanggaard, Robin Vos standing next to a person in a suit and tie: State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) along with Milwaukee area GOP members of the Wisconsin State Legislature, joined local supporters of the state budget at a news conference at Kinetic Company in Milwaukee Thursday, June 27, 2019. The two-year spending plan funds the priorities of the state including K-12 education, college and tech schools, health care, transportation and tax relief. © Mike De Sisti State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) along with Milwaukee area GOP members of the Wisconsin State Legislature, joined local supporters of the state budget at a news conference at Kinetic Company in Milwaukee Thursday, June 27, 2019. The two-year spending plan funds the priorities of the state including K-12 education, college and tech schools, health care, transportation and tax relief.

MADISON - Wisconsin’s last legislative session was marked by budget fights, litigation, inaction and gridlock.

The two-year session that starts Monday may serve up more of the same.

In a sign of how deep the divisions are, Democrats in the Assembly are considering skipping Monday’s swearing-in ceremony because Republican leaders aren’t requiring attendees to wear masks and taking other steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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Republicans start the session with commanding majorities — 60-38 in the Assembly and 20-12 in the Senate — but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers can veto any legislation they pass.

The two sides have not been able to agree on much over the last two years and there’s no sign they will any time soon. That could make for a grueling session as the coronavirus continues to tear across the state and the faltering economy slices into the state’s tax base.

Their differences, and whether they can overcome them, will affect the budget, the state’s COVID-19 response, redistricting and every other issue that surfaces over the next two years.

It's possible they will broker a deal or two. The chances of a two-year budget agreement appeared grim in 2019, but Republican lawmakers ultimately passed a spending plan that Evers decided he could mostly accept.

In general, though, the two sides remain so far apart that they often barely speak to each other.

The pandemic has been the source of some of their most serious clashes. Evers signed a sweeping bill to fight COVID-19 in April, but legislators so far have declined to take up additional legislation.

Republican lawmakers sued Evers over his coronavirus policies, winning a state Supreme Court decision that ended his stay-at-home order. More recently, they filed a legal brief in support of an effort to end his mask requirement, but so far Evers has prevailed. Evers plans to extend his mask requirement this month as the state Supreme Court considers new challenges to his powers.

Evers and Republican leaders have talked in recent weeks about new legislation, but they remain far apart.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester has offered a plan that Evers has said is filled with poison pills. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg hasn’t signed off on Vos’ plan and cast doubt on the need for legislation, saying he believes the Legislature’s budget committee can find existing funds to deal with any COVID-related needs.

LeMahieu’s ascension to the position of majority leader could change the dynamic for the state’s leaders. LeMahieu replaces Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, who served as the Republican leader for over a decade but left the post when he was sworn in as a member of Congress on Sunday.

Fitzgerald was able to hold together a caucus that includes members who range from moderate to very conservative. Whether LeMahieu, a low-key second-term senator, can do the same will be tested in 2021.

If lawmakers are going to make any deals, they’ll have to reach them in the early part of the two-year session — before the 2022 race for governor heats up, said Brandon Scholz, a lobbyist for grocers and the former executive director of the state Republican Party.

“There’s probably a window for the next six to eight months before heavy election stuff starts to settle in next fall, kind of the one-year-out mark,” Scholz said.

Evers hasn’t said whether he will seek a second term and several Republicans are considering running for governor.

Scholz said lawmakers and Evers may be able to find common ground on issues like expanding broadband to rural areas and modifying the state’s unemployment system. The Evers administration was flooded with unemployment claims during the pandemic and thousands of people had to wait weeks or months to receive benefits.

Both sides have called for changes to the unemployment system, but they haven’t rallied behind the same solutions.

“It’s a good starting point,” Scholz said. “If both sides can at least identify and accept the fact that there’s a problem and it needs a solution, great. That’s a great starting point.”

Melissa Baldauff, a former spokeswoman for Evers, said working on broadband and the unemployment system would be laudable, but cast doubt on Republicans' willingness to work with the governor.

She noted Republicans were unable to get legislation to Evers that was meant to help farmers and curb homelessness and expressed frustration that they had only recently begun to meet with Evers regarding a new pandemic response plan. 

"It’s definitely encouraging that there are some conversations, but we need action, not talk," she said. "And that’s what’s disappointing, to see that they’re still not willing to actually do anything."

Tough budget ahead

The budget lawmakers will take up this spring promises to be more challenging than the one they last wrote. Evers and legislators could face a two-year budget gap of as much as $2 billion, according to a recent report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Evers will introduce his budget in February, but lawmakers are likely to reject large swaths of it, just as they did last time.

As he did two years ago, Evers will propose expanding the state’s BadgerCare Plus health care program under the Affordable Care Act. The move would provide health care coverage to thousands more Wisconsinites, while also bringing in millions of dollars in additional federal aid.

Evers has also said he may try to raise more money for the state by legalizing recreational marijuana.

Republicans have repeatedly rejected the Affordable Care Act funds and have said they oppose legalizing recreational marijuana. If they decide to go against Evers, they will have to make cuts to fill any budget holes.

During his two years in office, Evers has tried to get Republicans to act on his priorities by calling special sessions. They have largely ignored him.

Most recently, Evers called a special session to overhaul policing practices after the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer.

Republicans shut down that session without action just before Christmas, but Vos has formed a task force on policing and racial inequality that plans to offer legislation this year. Whether Republicans can unite around legislation that Evers also supports is unclear.

Since President-elect Joe Biden narrowly won Wisconsin, Republicans have said they want to revisit the state’s voting rules. Among other changes, they want to tighten the law that allows people who are indefinitely confined because of age or disability to vote absentee without providing a photo ID.

Evers has said he would veto any changes to voting laws that he considers restrictive.

Redistricting fight looms

Lawmakers during this session will have to draw new legislative and congressional districts — a politically fraught exercise that could end in an impasse. 

After the census every 10 years, states must draw new maps to account for changes in population. The way the maps are drawn can give one political party big electoral advantages. Republicans were able to give themselves an edge over the last decade because they controlled all of state government when the last maps were drawn in 2011.

With split control this time, the process is sure to be contentious and will likely wind up in court.

Heading to court presents risks for both sides. Conservatives control the state Supreme Court 4-3, but conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn has joined with liberals in some decisions, such as ones in December that rejected requests by President Donald Trump and his allies to throw out the state’s election results.

If a challenge to the maps goes to federal court instead of state court, it will be heard by a panel of three judges. Republicans have stocked the federal courts with conservative judges in recent years and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 cut off the ability to make one line of argument that Democrats had been relying on.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin's new legislative session may be like its last one: filled with gridlock and inaction

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