If you plan to place a bet on whether or not the Legislature will meet in a special session on Monday and take up measures tied to racial injustice and police reform — be careful how you phrase the bet.
It’s not completely clear what will happen in the Legislature on Monday.
On Monday Aug. 24, Gov. Tony Evers called a special legislative session on a series of bills on these topics. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the Senate will convene, as it is required to do.
But that does not mean that it will act, despite high-profile pressure from numerous sports teams including the Bucks, Packers and Brewers, as well as such national Democratic leaders as Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama all focused on the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha.
“This moment demands more than task forces or empty procedural gestures,” said Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback. “Wisconsinites deserve elected officials who will show up to work and lead on the challenges facing our state.”
The world is watching
There is intense outside pressure on the Legislature — which has not met since mid April and has convened only a handful of times in 2020 — to come back and address bills that the Legislative Black Caucus and Evers put forward more than two months ago on these timely topics.
The issues of police brutality and racial justice have exploded in this country since George Floyd was killed in late May in Minneapolis. They’ve been given further immediacy after Blake was shot on Sunday Aug. 23 and ensuing Kenosha protests turned deadly.
So it appears this legislative session will be highly scrutinized Monday.
Players on the Milwaukee Bucks specifically said they want the Legislature to act. “We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable,” Bucks guard George Hill said at a news conference surrounded by teammates. “For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take meaningful measures to address police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” He added, “We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action and remember to vote on November 3.”
Full statement from the Milwaukee Bucks: pic.twitter.com/jjGEyVcCmB
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) August 26, 2020
The National Urban League also said it is watching. The group asked for specific actions: “We also call on the Wisconsin Legislature, when it meets August 31 to consider a police reform bill, to pass legislation outlawing these ‘militias’ and imposing legal penalties on those who continue to belong to these groups.”
Fitzgerald’s statement Friday saying the Senate will convene raised hopes. “In light of the events that have transpired this week in Kenosha, the Senate will convene a special session of the Legislature on Monday, August 31st,” he said in a statement.
Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, said the Senate will take up Evers’ bills along with measures proposed by Republicans and legislation to “enhance penalties for violence perpetrated against police, firefighters and EMTs.”
However, the wording Fitzgerald used suggests that the Senate may perform only a perfunctory gaveling of a session open on Monday, as he inserted the phrase “in the coming months” in mentioning the bills.
Also, several procedural steps have not taken place. The Evers bills on the special session “call” have not been introduced, which is typically done in a meeting of the Senate and Assembly organizational committees, which had not occurred as of the close of business on Friday.
And only bills that Evers listed when calling the Legislature into session can be addressed Monday. In his release, Fitzgerald talks about also taking up Republican bills — and even acting on measures from a task force that Speaker Robin Vos plans to convene, which has not met, or even been appointed, yet. Given that the Legislature is out of session — acting on further bills would require that Evers add them to his order, or that the Legislature call itself into an extraordinary session.
The lack of all of those procedures points to Fitzgerald actually holding a “skeletal session” Monday, just gaveling in with as few as two people present — no fireworks, no action.
Other things could happen. The Legislature, in recent years, has altered or violated its own procedures and rules many times.
The most brazen maneuver would be to gavel in and then gavel out seconds later — as Fitzgerald and Vos did in November to show their disdain for a special session called by Evers to pass gun safety laws. It isn’t likely they would repeat that spectacle, but it also is extremely unlikely they are prepared to do any real work tackling the thorny, deep-seated problems facing people of color and how they are treated by police in Wisconsin.
This is something that other states — even those with split control between the parties — have wrestled with and found common ground.
What does the Legislature do?
The Legislature has to varying degrees paid little heed to every special session Evers has called, even though that is a power granted the governor that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has not eliminated at the request of Republican legislative leadership.
Further calls by Democrats, the governor, citizens and advocacy groups to take action on pandemic relief, addressing unemployment and passing racial justice and police reform bills have been rebuffed by Republicans.
It appears likely that after Monday Vos and Fitzgerald will leave the session open and later follow the same path they took with the special sessions Evers called to help struggling farmers and fund education. The end result was disappointing to those who wanted to see reform in education funding and farm aid. Most of the bills died when the session ended in April.
In those cases the Republican leaders gaveled in, but took no immediate action, as they appear poised to do Monday. And although they came up with some bills on each topic in February and March before they decided to call it quits for the year, they did not manage to get the majority of those bills to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
It’s also worth noting, in light of Vos appointing a task force on race and policing, that the three task forces he appointed during the 2019/20 session on suicide, water quality and adoption all put forward bills and reports, but most of those also died last April when the session was adjourned.
So signs point to a big letdown for advocates, protesters and groups that have applied pressure and raised expectations surrounding Monday’s special session.
Neither Fitzgerald, Vos nor other members of Republican leadership responded to questions on their plans.
Since June, Evers has been warning the Legislature he would force them into a special session if they continued to dodge the issues of racial injustice and police reform. When 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back at close range by a Kenosha police officer, Evers made good on that promise, calling the session.
On Monday — the scheduled special session day — it will have been 138 days since the Legislature last met and passed a bill.