Senate puts the dysfunction of Wisconsin politics on parade
WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 04: Radio personality Rush Limbaugh reacts as First Lady Melania Trump gives him the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump delivers his third State of the Union to the nation the night before the U.S. Senate is set to vote in his impeachment trial. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
The Senate clerk read two resolutions back to back in their entirety during the floor session on Tuesday.
The first one was a resolution to honor Black History Month that had been buried in a Senate committee because Republicans never allowed it to be voted on during the month of February. It honored several dozen Black people with roots in Wisconsin who were in business, nonprofits, politics and civil rights, including Hank Aaron and Kamala Harris. The part the GOP didn’t like acknowledged Black Lives Matter marchers and eight Wisconsin men and boys who were killed, or permanently wounded, by police.
The second resolution honored right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh who, as Democrats pointed out, mocked people of color, demeaned women, persecuted LGBTQ people and celebrated the deaths of 500,000 people from AIDS.
As Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) announced she would read quotes from Rush Limbaugh, she looked around and watched as “so many of my Republican colleagues” stood up and left — and asked in surprise if they were not proud of the person they chose to honor.
“We couldn’t even get our Black History Month recognized for February,” said Johnson. “One of the reasons it didn’t come to the floor in February [is] Republicans have issues with who we, as a Black body, choose to honor. Yet we have to sit in this body and honor somebody like Rush Limbaugh, who is a homophobic, xenophobic racist. Ra-cist. Racist.”
Off to a rough start
During the state’s Sunshine Week celebrating transparency in government, Democrats have highlighted procedural maneuvers that are used to keep popular legislation from ever coming to a vote if the majority party in the Legislature — currently Republicans — opposes them. For example, Democratic bills on marijuana legalization and fair maps never received a public hearing.
During the course of debate, a Senate hearing came up that was held by Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) on PFAS that featured “invited speakers only” according to its public agenda. Democrats pointed out that it did not meet the definition of a public hearing and that in order to be heard, one had to have “a golden ticket.” (Nass defended himself by saying that a lobbyist who was not on the agenda called his office asking to speak and got added, arguing anyone could have done that.)
The Senate took up two bills aimed at undermining agency rules. The first was an effort to undo a ban on conversation therapy targeting LGBTQ youth in an attempt to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) had ruled that mental health professionals may not use the widely discredited practice.
Republicans objected to the DSPS move, saying they had not intended for the department to take that action.
Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), who has introduced bills banning conversion therapy only to see them buried by the GOP, accused Republicans of using the “confusing Rubik’s Cube of Administrative Rules” to allow the widely disparaged practice to continue without having to go on record explicitly voting to do so.
“Unfortunately, now there are a group of people who try to make money off of something that is actually harmful to many younger people, kids that are growing up, who know who they are, but yet they’re going to be subjected to what I call torture, or brainwashing,” said Carpenter. “No competent psychiatrist or person helping with any type of issue should practice in the state of Wisconsin if they do conversion therapy.”
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said he wanted to make sure that anyone watching or hearing about this Senate debate knew that many states — even Republican-dominated states — have banned conversion therapy, as have many Wisconsin municipalities, starting with Milwaukee in 2018, followed by Racine, Madison, Eau Claire, Shorewood, Sheboygan, Superior, Glendale and Appleton. “So individually, municipalities and county governments can also move forward in banning this torture even if the state refuses to do the right thing,” he said.
The second administrative rule Republicans sought to overturn was one that enforced the measures passed last session on a bipartisan vote to protect the public from deadly diseases caused by PFAS “forever chemicals” seeping into drinking water and ground water.
The Republicans who objected to how the rules were implemented had two options to upend the ban on conversion therapy and remove teeth from the PFAS laws. They could pass the bills that were before them, which would then almost assuredly be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. Or, in a procedural motion, they could refer the bills back to committee, which stops the rules from being implemented as long as the bills are stuck there.
They chose the latter, in what Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) dubbed “a circuitous process to do an end run around democracy.” She said Republicans basked in great coverage after taking votes to protect the public from PFAS before their election campaigns last fall — then came back this year after elections and stopped the Department of Natural Resources from enforcing the law, “abusing rule process to kill the law they passed.”
Nass, who chairs the rules committee in the Senate, said the departments had gone beyond the parameters passed by the Legislature so the rules went beyond what legislators intended. “We would have chaos, if we allowed the departments to go willy nilly, and jump the fence and take up whatever they want and wrap it into an administrative rule.”
The PFAS bill’s author, Republican Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), disagreed. Cowles said the DNR was in the right and voted against his own party’s majority, which sent the bill back to committee.
“Well, I’m going to defend my own bill from the last session,” said Cowles. “There’s a Leg Council memo that gives the DNR perfect authority to do these four items. It’s not that big a deal, ladies and gentlemen. So I’m just going to defend my position and vote no on this. I would hope we all would, because these will make that firefighting foam bill work better.”
Unity around protecting sexual assault survivors
Two bills aimed at making sure Wisconsin would never have a backlog of sexual assault kits, also called rape kits, again came before the Senate and were met with unity of purpose by both parties. These bills lay out timelines and protocols for collecting, tracking and storing the kits to ensure a proper chain of evidence as well as allowing survivors to know the status of the kits from their case.
The kits contain evidence taken from victims that can help convict perpetrators and last session a solid, bipartisan bill that had the backing of law enforcement, health care interests, nurses, advocates and both Attorney General Josh Kaul and his Republican predecessor Brad Schimel passed the Senate. However it was killed in the Assembly when a divisive Republican version was put forward. Assembly Republicans refused to return to the bipartisan bill.
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“This bill is especially important, because we know that most offenders are repeat offenders and stopping one offender can lead to protecting and preserving the safety of countless more people in our communities,” said Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison). “We must do all we can to support survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence. And today, I am so proud that we’re taking this big step forward.”
“It’s an identical bill to what we passed two years ago,” noted Cowles. “I believe the bill is an important step to help the survivors of sexual assault to ensure that … they can have one less thing on their mind as they deal with the trauma that they endure from the sexual assault.”
“We certainly hope things go better this time in the Assembly,” he added before the two bills passed unanimously.
Senators celebrating their less divisive, extremist reputation when compared to their colleagues in the Assembly, had that feeling of superiority cut short.
The Assembly met while the Senate remained in session and passed bipartisan health bills (including allowing dentists to administer vaccines and protecting pre-existing conditions should the Affordable Care Act be overturned) then approved innocuous resolutions and adjourned.
In the Senate, the Republicans’ resolution praising Limbaugh came up next. “We’re spending all our time today talking about things that should actually be in the past,” an incredulous Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said five hours into the meeting, asking the Republicans to remove the resolution from the floor or at least vote against it.
“It’s not the symbol I want to see this house represent. There are no more words I can say that express the depth of real hurt that I feel today.”
After numerous descriptions of the harm Limbaugh did, hateful things he said and the divisive impact he had on politics and society were brought forward by Democrat after Democrat, one Republican — Sen. Andre Jacque (D-DePere) — spoke in defense of the resolution, saying Limbaugh had also been a philanthropist. “Rest in peace, Rush,” he concluded.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley asked her Republican counterparts not to “bury good bills into the slime” and to “end the session in a good way” by removing the Limbaugh resolution. She asked, “Why would we want to end the session with a purposeful act to divide us? Do you really want to create chaos?”
And for a brief 15 minutes, it appeared the answer might be no. Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) yelled at all his colleagues, apparently equating the two resolutions recognizing Black History Month and honoring Limbaugh as an equal waste of time and furthering “culture wars.”
“I’m just disgusted with this body,” he said. Then Republicans withdrew from the floor for a short caucus in the majority leader’s office. They returned to the floor and called for a vote.
The resolution honoring Black History Month was rejected by Senate Republicans.
The resolution honoring Rush Limbaugh was passed by Senate Republicans.
And the Senate adjourned.
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