Forcing legislators to face the public

By: - March 16, 2021 6:15 am
Sen. Melissa Agard holding copies of her public hearing petition bill | Agard Facebook

Sen. Melissa Agard holding copies of her public hearing petition bill | Agard Facebook

There are a number of bills that poll extremely well with the public — many getting a thumbs up from significantly more than half the people in Wisconsin, including most Republicans. Think cannabis legalization, closing the dark store tax loophole, nonpartisan redistricting, universal background checks for gun sales, expanding BadgerCare using federal resources, raising the minimum wage.

Not only do these bills never pass the state Legislature, they never get voted on, even in committee. In fact, most never see the light of day in committee, not even for a public hearing.

“All of these [policies] have overwhelming support by the people of Wisconsin, but have not had a fair shake in our Legislature, because the party in charge is not being held accountable,” says Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison). “Why are they afraid to have this conversation?” 

Agard and Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) say they have seen far too many popular measures die unnoticed. So they are introducing a bill that would allow the public to petition to force the Legislature to hold a public hearing on any bill if enough people want it to happen. They’re calling it “The People’s Voice Act.”

The legislation doesn’t make it too easy — the petition would have to be signed by enough registered Wisconsin voters to equal at least 3% of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Currently that is more than 78,000 people. The Wisconsin Elections Commission would certify the petition and if enough people call for the hearing, one would have to be held before at least one legislative committee (it could be in the Senate, Assembly or a joint hearing) within 30 days.

The process and its certification would be similar to the rules for a recall petition, although it could be signed online.

Legislative Reference Bureau statistics show that of the roughly 1,000-plus bills that were introduced in the past two sessions, fewer than half received a public hearing. 

Rep. Gary Hebl | Wisconsin Eye
Rep. Gary Hebl on his public hearing bill | Wisconsin Eye

“As legislators, we should be fostering open, transparent and accessible government,” asserts Hebl. “We want an open dialogue of ideas, and we want to ensure that the people’s voice is heard.”

Hebl says holding so few public hearings is a sign that the party in power is so entrenched the leaders aren’t concerned about public opinion.

“This also shows how bad gerrymandering has been in our state, where the party in power feels no need to be responsive to public opinion,” adds Hebl. “This is an innovative way to make our state government more open to everyone in our state.” 

In many states citizens are able to put a vote to a binding referendum on a ballot, but the National Conference of State Legislatures told the authors this is the first bill of its kind in the nation. 

“Imagine a bill that has a clear majority of public support that can’t even get a public hearing,” says Agard. “To me, this shows that the system is broken. It shows that the gerrymandered majority isn’t listening to the people of the state.” 

Where’s the bipartisanship? 

Recently Speaker Robin Vos stated that 90% of the bills that pass the Legislature do so on bipartisan votes. That may come as a surprise to members of the public who see massive disagreement over COVID relief, election reform and BadgerCare expansion. Not to mention the Republican legislative leadership whose response within minutes of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers introducing his budget was to announce they would toss it out and start over.

Vos’ statistic is misleading.

Indeed there are a few issues where representatives from both parties work together and find common ground. For example, a bill providing standards for collection and retention of sexual assault kits has emerged from committees with strong bipartisan support this session, and there have been compromises on water quality and PFAS pollution control. And there are many minor bills that fix or update statutory language or recognize a good person or cause. 

But another factor that boosts the bipartisanship statistic reinforces Agard’s point. If the chairs of the committees — all Republicans — don’t like a bill, they simply ignore it once it has been referred to their committee. And the leader of the body — Sen. Devin LeMahieu in the Senate and Vos in the Assembly — has power over the committee chairs, whom they appoint.

Neither LeMahieu or Vos or their spokespeople responded to requests for comment.

Responding to Vos’ claims of overwhelming bipartisanship, Agard responds: “When you’re the person who is deciding, unilaterally, what comes up, you get to cook the books. And he has control of the committee chairs.”

This bill, she says, takes a small amount of power away from the legislative leaders and gives it to the people.

A case in point

Terry Polich, an attorney representing the Wisconsin Cannabis Association, says the issue of adult legalization is “an excellent illustration” of the need for this bill. The issue regularly wins in polling, as well as recent county and municipal referenda, yet there has not been a hearing on the topic for 11 years. And laws throughout the country — although not in Wisconsin — have changed dramatically in that period of time.

photo of three leaves from a marijuana pot plant an a vial of oil
Photo by Kimzy Nanney on Unsplash

“The public needs a constructive avenue by which they can organize and speak truth to power,” says Polich. “We all know that the public overwhelmingly supports adult and medical use of cannabis. And this approval cuts across partisan lines.”

Yet when Evers put legalization of adult use of marijuana in his 2021-23 budget, Republican leadership mocked it as outlandish. Marquette Law School polls have shown that around 60% of the public supports full legalization, while more than 80% support legalizing medicinal marijuana.

“So when lawmakers decide to ignore the overwhelmingly demonstrated will of the people on an issue in this fashion there should be some method by which the public can organize and at least force a public hearing of their views,” says Polich. “And that is what this bill does.” 

A public bullhorn

How might this process put more pressure on the majority to act on popular issues when the Legislature has ignored calls on many of these same issues — including gun control, police reform, education funding — even when Gov. Tony Evers has called on them to convene in a special session?

The authors stress that the bill shines a light on issues that are otherwise buried, but it doesn’t, from their perspective, step on the legislative process. In fact, says Agard, the reason it goes no further than forcing a public hearing is that they designed it to “ honor the legislative process.” It does not force any vote in committee or bring any bill to the full Legislature. But the process of gathering signatures in and of itself would draw attention to issues that otherwise are swept under the legislative rug.

Agard says that any petition that gets 78,000 signatures means a lot of people are hearing about an issue and watching more closely to see what happens. 

“One of the things that I’ve heard from people even since introducing the bill is that this forces policymakers to actually face the public and to answer the tough questions about why things aren’t moving forward,” adds Agard. “And that gives them hope — more hope in the political process.”

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Melanie Conklin
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.