Wisconsin gridlock between Democratic governor, lawmakers

November 8, 2019


FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2012, file photo, Fourth-graders from Medford Elementary and Stetsonville Elementary schools perform during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Gov. Tony Evers has gone back to calling the state Capitol Christmas tree a holiday tree, reigniting an old fight over what to call the evergreen.

MADISON, Wis.  — A tumultuous week that put on full display the partisan agendas of Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican Legislature also revealed the limitations both face under divided government that increasingly results in gridlock.

Republicans started and ended an Evers-called special session on guns within seconds, taking no action, and they fired an Evers Cabinet secretary as the scowling governor watched from the floor of the Senate. Democrats rebuffed three attempts to reverse Evers' vetoes, the first override votes in nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the Senate ended its work for the year having passed few bills. The Assembly is coming back for one more day before 2020.

Evers has signed just 20 bills into law during his first year in office — a fraction of what his predecessors have done under divided governments — and has vetoed seven bills in their entirety. If that continues, it will be the highest veto rate of any governor in Wisconsin history, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

In a word: gridlock.

"It disappoints me because I know we're better than this," said Dale Schultz, a Republican who served in the Legislature for 23 years before retiring in 2014. "I've seen us better than this."

Much of the partisan dramatics resulted in very little that will affect the average Wisconsin family. While Republicans exerted their power by firing Evers' agriculture secretary, less than two days later he appointed an interim replacement who will carry through with his administration's goals without missing a beat.

Democrats pushed for a pair of gun control bills, pointing to polls showing broad public support and arguing that the measures would reduce the number of suicides by firearms and increase public safety. Republicans discounted the arguments and took no votes on the bills calling for a universal background check and allowing judges to take away guns from people determined to be a threat.

Tim Cullen, a former Democratic state senator who crossed party lines to serve in the Cabinet of a Republican governor, said the gridlock was "bad for Wisconsin."

"As I see the problem, there are no outer boundaries beyond which partisanship doesn't go any more," Cullen said.

This week of unrest is just a continuation of what had been going on even before Evers took office.

Republicans convened a lame-duck session to weaken his powers weeks before he took the oath. Once in power, the Legislature has looked for every way possible to stymie his agenda. Ousting his agriculture secretary this week so angered Evers that he took the seemingly unprecedented step of watching the debate in person, just a few feet away from lawmakers. The normally mild-mannered Evers, a former teacher and state education chief whose preferred form of entertainment is the card game euchre, lashed out at Republicans in the halls of the Capitol in an angry retort sprinkled with four-letter words.

Democrats tried to score a political win in the defeat of the gun control bills in the special session that wasn't.

Senate Democrats maximized the drama, pausing for a moment of silence to recognize victims of gun violence at the appointed start time of the special session when Republicans were nowhere to be found. Democrats in the Assembly, while denied a chance to debate or vote on the gun bills, still hammered Republicans for dodging the issue. Polls show more than 80% public support for the measures.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said he hoped inaction by Republicans would lead to voters ousting Republicans, as happened in Virginia this week after GOP lawmakers there refused to take up gun control legislation.

To end the week, Evers threatened to re-ignite an evergreen fight over what to call a tree decorated ahead of Christmas in the Capitol rotunda. It was called a "holiday tree" for 25 years but former Republican Gov. Scott Walker called it a Christmas tree the past eight years. Evers on Friday announced he was once again calling it a "holiday tree" and said the theme for decorating it was "celebrating science."

The partisan fighting with few tangible results frustrates people who want and expect the Legislature to address issues that are important to the state, said Schultz, the former Republican lawmaker.

"They have to look themselves in the mirror and ask what responsibility they have for the gridlock and what they can do to make it better," Schultz said. "We have far too many people counting coup and not enough people cherishing friendships and sharing a belief that the future can be better."

No more 'Christmas tree': Wisconsin governor returns 'holiday tree' name to evergreen

MADISON, Wis.  — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has gone back to calling the evergreen on display at the state Capitol a holiday tree, reversing his predecessor who declared it a Christmas tree.

The state Department of Administration places a huge evergreen in the Capitol rotunda every year ahead of Christmas. The tree has been a tradition in the Capitol since 1916.

Politicians called it a Christmas tree until 1985, when they began referring to it as a holiday tree to avoid perceptions that they were endorsing religion. DOA allows other groups to place displays in the rotunda as end-of-the-year holidays approach, including a menorah and a Festivus pole, a nod to the fictional holiday in the "Seinfeld" television series. But the controversy over what to call the tree has never really died.

In 2007 the Republican-controlled state Assembly passed a resolution to call the tree a Christmas tree, but it died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, declared the tree a Christmas tree when he took office in 2011.

Evers, a Democrat, called the tree a holiday tree on Friday. He announced the tree's theme will be "Celebrate Science" and asked schoolchildren to submit science-related ornaments to adorn the tree.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff didn't immediately respond to an email asking why the governor has gone back to calling the tree a holiday tree.

Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the state Senate majority leader and a 2020 congressional candidate, tweeted that Evers' move was "'PC' garbage. It's a Christmas Tree (sic)."

Tweeted Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos: "We all know it's a Christmas tree no matter what @GovEvers calls it ..."

Asked for his thoughts on calling the tree a holiday tree, The Rev. Andrew Kurz, the Knights of Columbus Wisconsin state chaplain, said in an email that "anyone who is intent on keeping Jesus Christ out of Christmas could be considered as working against our mission, but we would forgive them with an invitation to find the way, the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ."

Asked in a follow-up email if he was saying Evers is removing Christ from Christmas, Kurz said he wasn't sure what the governor's intentions are.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, applauded Evers' decision to rename the tree. She said the move shows the governor is trying to be inclusive and noted the Christmas tree originates from pagan traditions.

She also praised Evers for promoting science, saying the real reason for the end-of-the-year holidays is the winter solstice, the day in the northern hemisphere with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year.

"So many people don't even know that that means," Gaylor said.

Evers promotes deputy after Senate fires agriculture leader

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers has promoted the deputy agriculture secretary after the Wisconsin Senate fired the head of the agency earlier this week.

Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff on Thursday said that Randy Romanowski will take over as interim secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Romanowski has worked for a variety of positions in state government for decades, including eight years as the safety program chief for the State Patrol immediately prior to being picked as the agriculture department secretary.

Romanowski replaces Brad Pfaff. The Republican-controlled Senate rejected Pfaff's confirmation on Tuesday, resulting in him losing his job.

Evers ripped into Republicans following the vote, calling it "BS." Republicans say they were upset with Pfaff for pushing more restricting agriculture siting rules and criticizing the GOP for not releasing money for farmer suicide prevention efforts faster.

Wisconsin GOP dodges governor's call for gun control bills


Wisconsin State Senator LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee speaks during a press conference Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin Republicans who control the state Legislature were expected to dodge the Democratic governor’s call to pass a pair of gun control bills during a special session Thursday, even as advocates planned to increase the pressure on them by holding a rally and flooding the galleries.

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans dodged the Democratic governor's call to pass a pair of gun control bills during a special session that ended as soon as it began Thursday.

Gov. Tony Evers, the state attorney general, gun control advocates and Democratic lawmakers all urged Republicans to vote on the bills. But Republicans ignored them, convening the special session separately in the Senate and Assembly and adjourning within seconds without taking action.

Evers last month ordered a special session for Thursday afternoon to address bills that would impose universal background checks on gun sales and establish a so-called red flag law in Wisconsin. Such laws allow family members and police to ask judges to temporarily seize firearms from people who may pose a threat.

Citing polls showing broad support for both ideas, Evers said Republicans will face blowback from voters at the next election over their inaction.

"If you refuse the people of this state a vote on these proposals, you are once again denying the will of the people, circumventing the democratic process, and refusing to do your jobs as elected officials," Evers wrote in a letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Thursday.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said Republicans should vote or risk losing power as in an election this week in Virginia, where gun violence was a major campaign issue.

"Failing to act on basic public safety measures is accepting there is nothing we can do to make our communities safer," Hintz said. "We cannot sit back and do nothing. We have a responsibility to act. ... The issue's not going away. We shouldn't have to wait for the next mass shooting to get more attention on it."

Gun control advocates including Moms Demand Action, Doctors for America and the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee rallied at the Capitol.

"We go to school every day wondering if we will be next," Karly Scholz, a junior at Madison West High School and the director of the Wisconsin chapter of March for Our Lives, said at a news conference before the rally. March for Our Lives is an anti-gun group that formed after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

"When lawmakers say they won't even debate this issue, I'm being told that my life doesn't matter, that my safety doesn't matter," Scholz said. "When the young people you refuse to protect turn 18, we will vote you out."

Assembly Democrats argued that the red flag bill would do more to prevent suicides than a package of other measures the Assembly passed that sprang from a bipartisan suicide prevention task force.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said lawmakers have a chance to save lives.

"This problem isn't going to go away because the Legislature ignores it," Kaul said.

Seventeen states have passed red flag laws. Twenty-one states have similar universal background check laws.

But Fitzgerald and Vos insist both proposals infringe on Second Amendment gun rights. Vos said he opposed the red flag law because it would allow for confiscation of weapons if there's a suspicion someone may do something wrong.

"Even when you yell fire in a crowded theater, it happens first and you're prosecuted after," Vos said. "I don't understand those who would want to take away our constitutional rights on an idea or a threat." He said a Republican-sponsored bill that would make grants available to gun shop owners to store guns from people who voluntarily give them up is less invasive than the red flag proposal.

Fitzgerald, for his part, has said it makes no sense to debate bills that won't pass without Republican support. He convened the special session to an empty Senate chamber and adjourned it about 30 seconds later. The Assembly was in special session about 10 seconds.

Despite all the warnings that Republicans will pay at the ballot box for ignoring the special session call, it's unlikely they'll suffer much damage in 2020.

The GOP redrew legislative district lines in 2011 to consolidate its support, leaving only a handful of truly competitive seats. As a result, Republican incumbents are less concerned about Democrats than they are about primary opponents who might appear more conservative than them. Gun rights are a basic plank in the Republican platform; any show of support for the special session bills or Evers would almost certainly invite such a challenge.

Evers almost certainly understands these dynamics but calling a special session on guns is still important to his base and gives him a chance to remind voters where each party stands.

Assembly passes bill expanding birth control access

MADISON — Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Assembly has passed a bill opposed by anti-abortion groups that would broaden birth control access.

The bill approved Thursday with bipartisan support would allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraceptive patches and birth control pills to anyone 18 or older. Under current law, only doctors can prescribe them.

Anti-abortion groups oppose the measure, arguing that increasing access to birth control encourages premarital sex and the odds of unintended pregnancies and abortions.

Democrats questioned the intention of Republicans, saying they are pushing the measure to make themselves more electable. Democrats favor a more expansive proposal that had no age limits on who could get the birth control.

It passed on an 82-13 vote.

The bill would also have to pass the Senate and be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers before becoming law.

Associated Press