Farewell: Legislative session ends, killing lingering bills

However, the pandemic requires reuniting — in what needs to be a bipartisan love fest

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Speaker Robin Vos hold a virtual press conference (six feet apart) on March 25, 2020
Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Speaker Robin Vos hold a virtual press conference (six feet apart) on March 25, 2020

Friday marks the official last day of the state’s regular legislative session. As of March 27, all the legislation that did not pass both the Senate and the Assembly in the same form is considered to have failed.

There is still a limited floor session window April 20-21, but, as The Wheeler Report points out, under Joint Rules the only bills that can be considered are: specific correction/revision bills, reconciliation bills between the houses, ratification of employee bargaining contracts or ceremonial citations.

That means a large number of high-profile bills officially died on Friday, because they have not cleared both houses. Many were waiting for action in the Senate, which cancelled a planned session that was meant to be its final session, earlier this week. 

However, the governor can call a special session or the Legislature can go into an extraordinary session if they want to act on these bills, or any other measures that are currently being negotiated, such as bills in response to the pandemic COVID-19 crisis.

The measures include: 

  • Help for the homeless in a package of seven remaining Assembly-passed bills coming out of the Republican-created Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness. One was signed into law, the rest had been sitting idle in the Senate despite staunch objections from Democrats.
  • Either of two bills to prevent a future backlog of rape-evidence kits, including the one pushed by Attorney General Josh Kaul. A version panned by Kaul and sexual-assault victims and advocates passed the Assembly.
  • A bipartisan bill aimed at reducing the costs of prescription drugs.
  • Bills from the Water Quality Task Force, including measures to address well-contamination and conservation, that passed the Assembly.
  • A package of bills designed to address the growing agricultural crisis in Wisconsin, including allowing sole proprietors to deduct their health insurance costs from their income taxes, a temporary tax credit for smaller farms and measures to boost exports.
  • Remaining Suicide Prevention Task Force bills.
  • Other measures still in the pipeline include: a campus speech bill, stronger PFAS control, pieces of an Assembly ‘Tougher on Crime’ package (others were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers), drunk-driving bills, another constitutional convention push, adoption bills and a 4 a.m. bar time for the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee planned for this summer, which COVID-19 may have made moot. 

Will the Legislature be back soon?

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald 3/25/20
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald 3/25/20

During a media availability on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said they did not have specific plans for a future floor session, but gave every indication — particularly on the topic of COVID-19 response — they would be back.

Vos indicated he would prefer an in-person session, saying that just like workers at a grocery store or hospital, the job of elected officials is “incredibly important.”

“So I would like to be able to have us come in and have a session in a way that is safe,” Vos said. “If it’s done remotely, that’s a possibility. But our preference would be to do it in a way … that allows for the full debate, but allows people who have either compromised immune systems or have quarantined themselves to fully participate — but not make that a requirement.”

Further confirming there would certainly be some future session, Fitzgerald said the Senate held a dry run earlier in the week and there were “a few bugs to work out, but it went very well. So I’m hopeful that as soon as we come together on policy, that it will kind of make it apparent that it’s time for the Legislature back into session.”

At least one of his members wants to be there in person — and right away — to take action on pandemic-related matters.

On Thursday, Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) sent a scathing letter to Senate President Roger Roth (R-Appleton) to let him know he felt the Senate should have been in session this week.

“I believe we should have already been in session this week to address the many important and timely issues that needed action with COVID-19 and on issues related to the April 7th election,” wrote Carpenter. “To be honest, I feel legislative leaders have failed in doing their duties to their constituents in playing an active role in passing legislation combating this emergency public health crisis. … Senate leaders have been missing in action by not convening the Legislature to address the ever growing number of problems stemming from this virus. Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald have continually sat on their hands … It’s past time for the Legislature to get into the battle to combat COVID-19.”

On the agenda: routine bills/COVID-19

In terms of bills Vos would want on the table, he mentioned being contacted by professions that have professional licensing renewal requirements from nurses to food-production. He added such measures would likely take quick action so these workers could continue practicing without interruption until “things get back to normal.”

Speaker Robin Vos at a virtual press conference on March 25, 2020
Speaker Robin Vos at a virtual press conference on March 25, 2020

Fitzgerald also highlighted “less high-profile issues,” including needs state agencies have told him are necessary to continue routine business. He added that the federal $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package would also likely require action by the state. 

“We’re kind of right in the middle of that process and still working with the caucuses to make sure that they’re informed on those issues, but there’s a number of pieces of legislation that are ultimately going to be in a position where they’re going to be taken up.”  

Neither leader commented on previously debated bills that officially end with the session on Friday. 

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) said first up should be “what the state can do policywise to support displaced workers” and “immediate action we can take that probably involves resources to support the public health workers and make a meaningful difference.” 

He said that should involve eliminating the one-week waiting period before collection of unemployment benefits. He agreed with Fitzgerald that quick action to position the state to secure the federal dollars Wisconsin is eligible for is vital — and said a virtual meeting is best so legislators (particularly older lawmakers and those with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus) do not need to choose between their own health and acting to help others.

Fitzgerald and Hintz confirmed that legislative leaders and the governor are currently in talks negotiating what might be on a future agenda, possibly in the form of a big umbrella bill containing all emergency COVID-19 responses. 

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz

Hintz also believes the Legislature should not wait for one big bill or be confined to one future mega-session, and said his colleagues agree.

“I think the public looks for those who can do something to do something — and that’s another part of the urgency,” Hintz said. “To me if there are things that we agree on, we should act and then work out the other things that are not as urgent. In other words, we don’t have to put off some date for some big omnibus motion, we should be able to meet immediately.”

He added that the spirit of unity can be strong enough to supersede partisanship in this crisis: “We’re capable of meeting in this moment and really dropping the politics that have plagued us over the last year-and-a-half.” 

However, Vos said speed needs to be balanced with caution to avoid mistakes. 

“We’re going to do this as quickly as we are able to, but we’re not going to rush into it and make bad decisions,” Vos said. “Ten years ago, when we were in the same situation, when the stimulus money came, I know there was a lot of incentive to hurry and get it out the door. But we don’t want to do it in a way that grows the size of government after the session is over. We don’t want to do it in a way that grows bureaucracy or red tape so that it is actually harder for people to access the money … as we go forward.” 

 

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.