There is little chance that Wisconsin legislators, who haven’t met since mid-April, will reconvene—in person or online—again this year.
Although Democratic legislators and candidates are trying to make it a campaign issue, saying Republicans are cheating taxpayers by collecting their annual $52,000 salaries and not meeting to respond to the Covid-19 crisis and need for policing reforms, there are four reasons why the Legislature seems done for the year.
- Number 1: No need for fall votes on a budget-repair bill.
For many reasons, including the veto by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of a GOP tax-cut bill before the pandemic locked down the state’s economy, state government began the current fiscal year July 1 with a surplus of about $760 million.
That’s partly because tax collections, which were watched carefully because of the pandemic, actually increased by 1% last year.
Plus, the state Department of Administration (DOA) recently said state agencies followed an emergency cut-spending order Evers issued and returned about $300 million in unspent funds on July 1.
Add those two- a surplus of $760 million and $300 million in unspent funds—and it translates into a $1-billion hedge against any downturn in state tax collections in the current year, which ends on June 30.
“I don’t think we’ll have to pass a budget-repair bill this year,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a WisconsinEye interview.
- Number 2: Senate Republican leaders haven’t decided to act on about 150 Assembly-passed bills and resolutions that died when legislators went home after one-day April sessions.
With no signal from Senate leaders that they want to negotiate deals on any of those 150 items, Vos said there is no reason for the Assembly to reconvene this year.
One Republican senator, Pat Testin, of Stevens Point, said in a WisconsinEye interview he asked his party’s leaders to reconvene the Senate to act on Assembly-passed bills on clean water. His request went unanswered, Testin added.
- Number 3: No bills dealing with policing reforms or racial disparities in the criminal justice system will be ready for debate until next year, Vos and Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican and retired Racine police officer, predicted.
After a white Kenosha police officer shot a black man seven times in the back on Aug. 23, prompting protests and violence, Vos announced a task force to study racial disparities and related issues. But members of that task force, cochaired by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Madison Democratic Rep. Shelia Stubbs, still haven’t been named.
- Number 4: For now, Senate Republican leaders are focused on their own political futures.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is running for the U.S. House seat of retiring Rep. James Sensenbrenner.
And two GOP senators—Senate President Roger Roth, of Appleton, and Devin LaMahieu, of Oostburg—are trying to line up support to be the next Senate majority leader, if Republicans keep Senate control after Nov. 3. Republicans control the Senate by a 19-14 margin.
Hoping voters will pay attention, Democratic legislators and candidates call it a “do nothing” Legislature.
Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee denounced Republicans’ inaction last week, for example.
“As new Covid cases have spiked and hospitalizations followed, many of our state’s health systems are near the brink. It’s been almost half a year since the Legislature acted to address this crisis and things have gotten worse and worse,” said Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee.
“If you elect me, I promise you won’t get a ‘do nothing’ strategy,” Democratic candidate Aaron Wojciechowski, of Oshkosh, said in a Facebook post. He is running against Republican Sen. Dan Feyen, of Fond du Lac.
Republican legislators say they’ve been busy.
Republican Rep. John Jagler, of Watertown, said in a WisconsinEye interview that legislators started advocating for local businesses in April, when the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. was authorized to decide which “essential” businesses could remain open.
That fight was full of “land mines,” Jagler added.
Then, Jagler said, Republican legislators fought with the state Department of Workforce Development for laid-off workers to get unemployment benefits. The backlog in paying jobless benefits forced Evers to fire the head of that agency.
“Just because we’re not banging the drum and doing some legislation doesn’t mean we’re not actively helping our constituents,” Jagler said. “To say that we haven’t done anything is not true.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org