One hundred days out of office: What is the Legislature good for? 

Lawmakers last met in April, allowing no further action on COVID-19, police reform or budget woes

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, (R - Juneau), left, and Senate President Roger Roth, (R - Appleton), 2nd left, talk to Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, (D - La Crosse), right before the start of the session. On Wednesday April 15, 2020 the Wisconsin State Senate in Madison, held a virtual session to take up legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the state will receive more than $2 billion in federal aid. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

It’s been 100 days since the Legislature met in session and passed an initial response to COVID-19.

The state Senate never finished its work for the 2019-20 session. It cancelled — and never rescheduled — the remaining day of its regular session as the pandemic hit. When the session period officially ended, all bills not passed by both houses officially died.

Evers signs COVID-19 bill into law
Evers signs COVID-19 bill into law on April 15. It’s the last piece of legislation that the Legislature passed this year. Photo courtesy of Evers’ office.

On April 15 the state Senate passed (and Gov. Tony Evers quickly signed) what became Act 185 to provide help to Wisconsinites during the pandemic. In order to get a bill through the Legislature that would be signed by Evers, it had to have bipartisan support. Not surprisingly, in the end, no one was fully content with the bill. Lawmakers, both Republican and Democratic, said it was just a start, and they hoped to do more.

This bill isn’t perfect and it might be the first bill of a number that we are going to have to pass in the Legislature,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said at the time. “But it is timely and I think it’s been well thought out, and I think it will help.”

“This will not be our only response,” stated Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), “but it is a very strong first step to clear the way for our state to respond and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“This package is a great first step in addressing the uncertainty coronavirus has caused throughout our state,” said Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) in a release. “I am proud of the relief this package provides.”

Evers agreed with these Republicans: “Hopefully this won’t be a one-shot answer to the crisis here in Wisconsin, but an opportunity to establish a dialogue so we can talk about the farmers of the state, talk about small business owners to our state with the hundreds of thousands of people who employ them.”

One hundred days later, no further laws have been passed. The Legislature — which did not include even $1 of funding in its pandemic bill — has not met.  Assembly Republican leadership has only come forward to tell police, mayors and Evers what to do about the destruction of state property the morning after statues were damaged in downtown protests, and again, later, to tell Evers what they thought he should do about delays and problems with unemployment benefits by providing forgivable loans to people who applied for unemployment compensation.

Yet the Legislature has taken — or left undone — actions that have put hurdles in the way of receiving unemployment. Many of these passed under full Republican control and were signed by former Gov. Scott Walker. And the technology used to process the claims is decades old and has not been replaced by lawmakers of either party.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Rep. Tyler August speak with the media after state property was damaged at a protest. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Assembly Republicans, including Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Jim Steineke, held those news conferences, while Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, has rarely been seen. Republicans were most visible when they took their complaints against Evers to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where justices curbed executive powers, forced in-person elections during a pandemic and overturned the governor’s Safer-at-Home order. 

Another impending crisis is on the horizon another 100 days from now. It appears that the November election will take place while the pandemic continues. Even so, many Republicans are crusading against mail-in ballots.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason) says Republican obstructionism hurts Wisconsin’s efforts to contain the pandemic.

Sen. Janet Bewley in March 2019 celebrating the Girl Scouts (Via her legislative Facebook page
Sen. Janet Bewley in March 2019 (Bewley | Facebook)

“We have no predictability, we have no consistent way to deal with this. And that’s primarily because of the Republicans refusing to let the governor be the governor.” She slams Republican legislators for failing to address pressing crises, including COVID-19, economic fallout, upcoming elections and police reform.

“Republicans seem to be perfectly content to see the state fall into chaos,” adds Bewley. “I think that is a dereliction of duty. It is ignoring the basic thing that we are supposed to do as elected officials which is, first of all, we must protect the public good. We have to protect public health and welfare.”

Summer of spiking cases

As cases of COVID-19 ratcheted up and surpassed previous records, Fitzgerald and Vos have made it clear in public statements that they do not intend to meet until after the election — or perhaps not until next January. The Legislature can call itself into session any time, as can the governor — but Republicans have thwarted his attempts.

Normally, in even-numbered years, the Wisconsin Legislature adjourns in March or April as members go home to campaign for reelection and it does not meet until the following January.

But from the pandemic to nationwide marches, protests and calls for action on police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers — 2020 can hardly be labeled normal.

The Minnesota State Capitol where legislative houses under control of different parties met in special session this week to pass police reform bills. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Legislatures in other states are meeting and making policy on issues from pandemic relief to police and criminal justice reforms.

Wisconsin’s Legislature made positive strides under Republicans around growing the state’s rainy day fund to more than $600 million. That fund still sits untouched at a time of extreme need and two series of budget cuts imposed by Evers of $70 million in June, and another $250 million ordered this week for the new fiscal year that began July 1.

It is not clear to many people what that fund is intended for — if not a health, election and economic crisis. Evers has not called for a budget repair bill, and Vos said he doubts there will be one.

Evers, meanwhile, says he favors a statewide mask mandate and would call a special session on police and criminal justice reforms. But he doesn’t want to push forward with either effort  because he believes — based on rhetoric and past actions — that the Republicans would gavel in and out with no action. He also has reason to believe  Republicans will race to the Supreme Court to stop any public-health mandates.

In a letter to the Legislative Black Caucus, Evers, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes wrote,  as they put forward police and criminal justice reform bills on June 19, that they would not patiently wait forever if Republicans refused to act.

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“This is the moment for action,” they declared a month ago, adding, “As we move forward, if there is an unwillingness to do this important work, conversations with legislative leaders break down, or there are talks of delays until the next legislative session, as governor, I am ready and willing to use my power to call on the Legislature into special session to act.”

Today we celebrate #Juneteenth, one of the oldest annual commemorations of the end of slavery in the U.S. This year we celebrated by raising the Juneteenth flag over the State Capitol building for the first time in state history.
Gov. Tony Evers an Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes celebrate Juneteenth raising its flag over the Wisconsin Capitol for the first time. (Evers’ Facebook)

On fighting COVID-19, Evers’ frustrations after his administration’s hands were tied on public health orders became clear Thursday as he told reporters that he would not hesitate to impose a statewide mask mandate if he could be sure it would not be challenged by Republicans or conservative groups in court.

“Unfortunately, there are some folks in this state that don’t believe that masks help,” Evers said at the news conference. “We know they do. There’s no question.”

Bewley says the natural unpredictability of the coronavirus is exacerbated by inconsistent public policy. Whether it’s President Donald Trump staunchly opposing masks but then recently donning one, or Wisconsin Republicans saying Safer at Home orders must be passed locally and then arguing against local orders in court — it’s very hard to know what to do and whom to believe, she says.

Another major issue she sees being harmed by inconsistency is how to start the school year.  

“A thing that concerns me the most right now is returning to school, from pre-K all the way through our university system,” Bewley says. “Education is a primary component of what government is able to provide.” 

Senate Democratic leadership including Sen. Jennifer Shilling (in red) and Sen. Janet Bewley (in black) listen to Gov. Tony Evers first State of the State address on Jan. 22, 2019. CC BY-ND 2.0

Constructive action at  a pivotal moment for racial justice, she says, is also a casualty. “We’re at a moment of enormous opportunity to correct the injustice of the past and to see a clear and bright future for all people, regardless of the color of your skin or your racial identification. We’re not given the chance to even discuss it … This inaction, it’s shameful. I’m sorry that my colleagues across the aisle simply want to ignore this opportunity.”

Neither Fitzgerald or Vos’ offices have responded for comment, but the Senate minority leader is willing to take a guess as to why even in the face of crisis, the Legislature remains adjourned.

It’s election season. In the Assembly, all 99 seats are up for reelection, as are 16 of the 33 Senate seats.

“I’m going to try to get into Fitz’s head, which is a dangerous thing to do, but I don’t think he wants to call a session because then there’s going to be an enormous amount of pressure on him to pass bills about COVID that he doesn’t want to pass,” guesses Bewley.

After the election the Legislature may pass the bipartisan bills that already passed the Assembly once, but died in the Senate when the session ended — including measures to help farmers, Bewley predicts. There will be a chance then to address the other hot topics including COVID-19. But over the next 100 days — in other words, not before November elections. 

“Fitzgerald’s not not going to put his Republicans that are running for office into a position to take a vote they don’t want to take,” she asserts. “I haven’t heard anything from him. It’s like he isn’t even on the same planet anymore. But he’s still a senator and there’s an awful lot of work that we should be doing right now.”