Legislators end session with little consensus, no action on gun control

Gun Protest
Protesters visit the Capitol rotunda on Thursday to demand action on Gov. Tony Evers' proposals to curb gun violence. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

In a floor session that opened after 2 p.m. and didn’t end until 9:30, the state Assembly on Thursday began with three failed veto-override attempts and ended with President Pro Tempore Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) gaveling a special session on gun violence open and shut without action.

In between, a Republican bill allowing pharmacists to prescribe contraception passed with bipartisan support. 

And in the final hours, the lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a series of bipartisan bills aimed at suicide prevention, which Democrats used to draw attention to the gun violence measures that Gov. Tony Evers had called the special session to pass. The suicide bills were the result of an Assembly task force on the subject appointed earlier this year.

Even before Thursday’s regular session started, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) had telegraphed the Republican majority’s intent to all but ignore the special session call.

“This is not figuring a way to bring people together,” Vos said of the Evers’ special session proposals at a news conference before the session. “This is not trying to say, ‘Where can we find common ground?’”

In response, at the start of the regular session, after a ceremony to honor the late former Rep. Edward A. Brooks, Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) urged the Republican leaders to take up Evers’ proposals — one bill to expand gun background checks and another to enable the courts to take guns from a person under an Extreme Risk Protection Order, sometimes called a “red flag” law.

“They are common sense measures that, again, aim to do exactly what the suicide Task Force heard,” Hintz said. “We need to try to keep firearms out of the hands or reduce the easy access of those who are a harm to themselves or to others. And that’s why the governor put these things forward. This shouldn’t be a political issue. This should be a bipartisan issue like it is in a lot of states.”

Veto overrides fail

All three of the veto-override attempts targeted items in the 2019-21 budget that Evers signed with partial vetoes last summer. The three all related to mental health: Borrowing $15 million for a regional mental health crisis center in Northern Wisconsin; adding $5 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for physicians and behavioral health providers; and designating  $500,000 for each of two years to be granted to a hospital or other institution to create a treatment trainee program. 

In his July veto message, Evers objected that the proposed Northern Wisconsin crisis center hadn’t gone through the standard process by which the state Building Commission evaluates projects, and redirected the $15 million to expand the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. 

He directed the Department of Health Services to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates in mental health, but objected to the budget’s use of funds taken from the Department of Health Services. His veto of the trainee program kept the money in place while directing DHS to develop criteria for the grant rather than follow the specific terms of the original appropriation.

After the overrides failed on successive votes of 62-34 — shy of the two-thirds majority needed to succeed — Vos and Evers sent out dueling press releases. The governor accused Assembly Republicans of “playing politics” and Vos declared that Democratic lawmakers had “failed to join Republicans in expanding mental health access.”

Some Republicans cast Evers’ veto of the proposed northern Wisconsin crisis center as a snub toward parts of the state that had voted for the Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, in the 2018 election for governor. “This is a direct attack on the areas of the state that did not elect him,” said Rep. Mary Felzkowski, (R-Irma).

But several Democrats observed during the floor debate that the Republican rewrite of Evers budget cut his original proposal for mental health funding by more than half. “Gov. Evers in his budget proposed $148 million in mental health funding,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). “The end Republican budget [was] $61 million. That’s $86 million in mental health funding stripped by Republicans in this room.”

Goyke also said the override attempts were a Republican effort to “distract from the issue of today” — Evers’ gun bills.

Robin Vos and Tyler August
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and President Pro Tempore Tyler August talk during proceedings on Thursday. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Birth control bill finds bipartisan support

As the Assembly then ran through a series of bills that were quickly dispatched on voice votes, Democrats took turns asking August whether and when he would follow through with the special session. His recurring answer: “It is my intention to complete the regular session calendar.”

The vote on the contraception bill (AB-304) created what may have been the only moment of genuine uncertainty. Democrats lauded the Republican-authored bill, while calling attention to past GOP bills that curtailed reproductive rights.

The author, Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), sought to persuade fellow Republicans opposed to the bill that he was satisfied that hormonal contraceptives do not cause abortions as some anti-abortion groups have falsely claimed.

Kitchens said expanding the availability of birth control could help reduce abortions and reduce social service costs, such as Medicaid, brought on by unintended pregnancies. 

Felzkowski, speaking for the bill, suggested that it was in line with Republican principles. “We are the party of less regulation,” she said. “We are the party of personal choice.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) praised the Republicans behind the bill for acknowledging that birth control bills don’t cause abortions. “It only took until 2019 to get there,” she said. “I’m happy we have a bill finally that recognizes this.”

Taylor added, however: “It does not take away the last eight years of attacks on reproductive health care by Republican legislators.”

The bill passed 82-13, with the ‘no’ votes all cast by Republicans; it now goes to the Senate, which has adjourned for the fall but could take it up next year if Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald allows it to move forward.

Emotions high on suicide prevention bills

Debates over the suicide prevention bills were punctuated by emotional speeches from Democrats and Republicans alike about their own experiences of loved ones who had attempted suicide or had taken their own lives. 

Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) spoke of his experience with bipolar illness and the ease with which he might have taken his life had a firearm been available. Calling the prevention measures inadequate in light of the leaders’ refusal to consider Evers’ proposals, he also voted against each of them.

The suicide prevention bills included measures funding two suicide prevention programs; requiring education for doctors, psychologists and social workers on suicide prevention; providing grants for peer-to-peer support programs in high schools; funding grants to the Wisconsin Safe and Healthy Schools Center; requiring contact information for suicide prevention hotlines be added to school ID cards; and funding grants to train the operators of gun shops and shooting ranges on how to persuade clients who might be at risk for harming themselves to voluntarily turn over their guns for safekeeping and how to avoid selling or providing guns to people at risk for suicide.

With each bill, Democrats turned the debate back to the Evers red-flag and background-check proposals. “I look at this agenda before us and I don’t understand, Mr. Speaker, how you can have a suicide prevention task force and ignore gun violence as a factor in suicide,” said Taylor, during debate over the bill making grants to schools. “This bill is insufficient in addressing the crisis that our children are going through every day.”

Republicans, meanwhile, repeatedly asserted that the proposals were a threat to second-amendment rights, and that existing laws were adequate. “On paper, we have very good laws,” said Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger). “The problem is they’re not being enforced consistently by our judicial system.”

Rep Melissa Sargent (D-Madison), who co-authored the gun shop bill, called it “one measure among many of them that we must take up” — and then pivoted back to Evers’ call for broader regulations. “This is a public health epidemic and we should be treating it as such.”

Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona), a co-author of the gun shop bill, said that a principle behind it was the notion of “if you see something, say something,” and intervening when people might be at risk for harming themselves, all without having to involve law enforcement or the criminal justice system.

But Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), referred to her own work before joining the legislature in combating human trafficking and noted that in that and related fields, the full phrase is, “If you see something, say something, and call the police.”

Without the option of Extreme Risk Protection Orders, Emerson said, lawmakers were asking people who aren’t law enforcement professionals to intercede, at potential risk to themselves. 

“We’re not going to pass this” — the Evers ERPO proposal — “right now,” Emerson said. “I realize that. We need to have this discussion out in the open. That’s what Gov. Evers was imploring us to do.”

In the end, the suicide prevention bills passed with only two, or in some instances, three, dissenters, despite deep divisions over their comparative effectiveness. 

The regular session wound down through a series of symbolic and commemorative resolutions, then concluded with a 15-minute adjournment ceremony in which lawmakers dedicated their adjournment to people in their districts or, in some cases, in the news.

After declaring the session adjourned, August gaveled open the special session, then shut it down on a motion from Majority Leader Jim Steineke, Jim (R-Kaukauna). The Senate did the same.

“All in favor say ‘Aye,’” August said, barely waiting for the “Ayes” from the Republican side of the aisle. “Opposed?” When a chorus of “No’s” arose from the Democrats that was easily louder than the affirmative vote, although cast by distinctly fewer people, August banged his gavel. “The ‘Ayes’ have it.”

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism.