Commentary

Robin Vos’ big splash on the Assembly’s last day

Giving Rebecca Kleefisch credit for closing Lincoln Hills

February 25, 2022 7:00 am
The Capitol lit up on a late December afternoon with snow in winter

The Wisconsin Capitol building in December | Richard Hurd CC BY 2.0

Robin Vos is a professional. Even when he’s down he relentlessly seeks his political advantage. 

He found it on Thursday, the last day of the Assembly floor session.

Democrats were incensed that Vos, in announcing his plan to wrap things up on Thursday, tossed aside dozens of bills, some with bipartisan support, that aimed to meet the needs of Wisconsinites. Instead, his agenda focused almost exclusively on a package of election-related bills designed to crack down on “illegal” voting, driven by discredited assertions that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud.

Minority Leader Rep. Greta Neubauer in the Democrats' pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye
Minority Leader Rep. Greta Neubauer in the Democrats’ pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

“Missed opportunities” was the theme of the Assembly Democrats’ pre-session press conference on Thursday. “We could have worked to ensure that every kid has the opportunity to succeed in our schools. We could have reformed our criminal justice system, addressed climate change, reduced systemic racial inequities in our state,” said Democratic Minority Leader Greta Neubauer. “We could be doing so much more for the people of Wisconsin, but that is not what we did this session. And that certainly is not what we are doing here today.”

Among the items that appeared to be headed for the dumpster was SB-520, a proposal to close the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison, replacing it with a new facility in Milwaukee. The measure had broad bipartisan support, making it out of committee with a unanimous vote and passing the Senate 33-0. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the pre-session news conference | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Vos told reporters Tuesday that he doubted the bill to close Lincoln Hills would pass the Assembly. He blamed Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, saying Evers had failed to provide enough of a plan to replace the facility. Evers has long supported closing Lincoln Hills and included $45.8 million for a new facility to replace it in his budget proposal, an item that was stripped out by Republicans. But many Republicans wanted to close and replace the facility, too. Lincoln Hills is an embarrassment, plagued with charges of child abuse and neglect, including a $19 million settlement with a former inmate who was severely injured there.

Vos might have felt fine about letting the children incarcerated at Lincoln Hills suffer a little longer in those awful conditions if it meant denying Evers an election-year victory. But a lot of people in both political parties didn’t share his single-minded point of view.

“We have enough votes to pass the bill,” Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) told reporters on Thursday. “I’ve said this all week: There is one person blocking passage of this bill and that is Speaker Vos.”

In their pre-session press conference, Democrats reeled off many more examples of productive legislation Vos had kicked aside, including clean water bills, the Legislative Black Caucus resolution to recognize Black History Month, medical marijuana legalization, nonpartisan redistricting, gun safety and expanding access to health care.

“Instead of dealing with those pressing issues, Republicans are still obsessing over and relitigating the 2020 general election,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit).  

Apart from a bill giving utility companies control over electric vehicle charging stations and a measure expanding the responsibilities of dental auxiliaries, the Republican agenda was, in fact, all election fraud all day long. 

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In his pre-session press conference, Vos put a cheerful face on the package of election bills that dominated the day, carefully walking the line between appeasing the wing of his party that has attacked him for not doing more about the “stolen” election of 2020 — including not achieving the legally impossible feat of recalling Wisconsin’s electors — and the reality-based community. 

“We know that a lot of people who live in Wisconsin have concerns about what happened in 2020,” Vos explained. “We are focused on the future, which means that we want to pass good legislation focusing on the 2022 election and beyond.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman leads the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)
Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman in a video promoting the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)

With a nod to the increasingly restless base that has embraced Donald Trump’s Big Lie that Biden did not actually win Wisconsin, Vos highlighted the partisan election investigation by Justice Michael Gableman, whom Vos himself appointed to look into allegations of fraud. Vos recently endorsed Gableman’s demand that a judge throw the mayors of Madison and Green Bay and the head of the state elections commission in jail if they don’t appear before him to give secret testimony. Gableman will be wrapping up his investigation and presenting its conclusions early next week, Vos announced — just as the current legislative session ends (but too late for legislators to try to turn his recommendations into law this year). 

“We are not looking backward about decertifying or overturning or doing anything with 2020,” said Vos, pivoting back to the middle and away from the election-deniers.  “We are going to take the problems that we’ve learned occurred then and move forward, and that’s what these bills are really about.” Vos called the bills “common-sense, middle-of-the-road election reform proposals.”

As the floor session unfolded, it became clear that they were anything but.

Among the bills the Republicans passed in Thursday, on straight party-line votes over Democrats’ objections, were a concurrence with Senate Bill 935, which prohibits private grants to municipalities to help with election administration. (The authors made particular mention of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s donations for that purpose, which have become a flashpoint for Trump supporters convinced, without any evidence, that municipalities who availed themselves of philanthropic grants to help run elections during the pandemic were involved in a corrupt scheme to steal the election from Trump.) The bill does not provide any additional  public resources to help run elections. It also restricts election workers’ ability to correct minor mistakes on absentee ballot certificates, reduces the ways to return absentee ballots and imposes restrictions on employees of residential care facilities who might try to help residents vote, imposing severe penalties.

Another bill, SB-936, requires the Wisconsin Elections Commission to respond to all citizen complaints and to provide copies of every citizen complaint filed related to voting and elections to the Legislature. Some Democratic legislators noted that this would be an enormous burden on elections officials, who have been besieged with nonsense complaints by the very Trump voters the Republicans have deliberately stirred up about nonexistent voter fraud.

A Democratic amendment to another GOP elections bill, SB-940, requiring voter lists to be matched with Department of Motor Vehicles lists, would have inserted an automatic voter registration process into the bill, registering people as they received their driver’s licenses. That did not sit well with Republicans, who voted to table the amendment and passed the bill without it.

Voting rights groups oppose SB-940 because the DMV and voting data systems were not designed to be compatible and many voters’ information on the two lists might not match. 

Unamended, the bill will  “disenfranchise voters for the slightest error or typo,” said Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie).  “It’s a pretty obvious example of why this is just a thinly veiled effort at voter disenfranchisement.” 

Hebl went on to denounce Republicans for the “comically lazy and bumbling” Gableman investigation and for villainizing local poll workers, whom everyone knows and loves. 

Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview) responded contemptuously that, with snow in the forecast it would soon be time to wrap up the Assembly session because “we may need to get home and do some shoveling. But before I get to that, I’d like to do some shoveling of some of the crap that’s been going on in this room.”

The sour tone of the debate dominated the day.

Rep. Daniel Knodl (R-Germantown) holds up a driver's license to show it doesn't verify U.S. citizenship
Rep. Daniel Knodl (R-Germantown) holds up a driver’s license to show it doesn’t verify U.S. citizenship | Screenshot Wisconsin Eye

Other election bills that passed included a joint resolution to amend the Wisconsin constitution to enshrine a photo I.D. requirement and another bill that would require the state Department of Motor Vehicles to put a notation on any driver’s license held by a non-citizen stating that it is  “not valid for voting purposes.” Yet another measure would block municipalities from allowing noncitizen residents to vote in local school board races and other local elections.

Democrat after Democrat denounced the Republican effort to shrink, rather than expand, the pool of voters, and to tinker with an election system that doesn’t actually need fixing.

“You’ve been telling people not to trust their institutions,” said Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay). 

“You have told them over and over again to go against exactly what they know to be true,” Shelton said. “And when they started to believe you, you turned around and said, ‘See, people don’t trust the elections. See, people are coming to me now and saying that we better do something about this.’ You have been setting this table to make it harder to register to vote, to make it harder to vote itself, to make it harder to hold you all accountable.”

At one point it seemed that Republicans and Democrats might reach a compromise on allowing elections officials to begin counting absentee ballots early, avoiding long election night tallies during which the apparent winner sometimes changes between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. But the deal fell apart, with Vos blaming Democrats for walking away and Democrats bitterly blaming Republicans for bad faith. 

As bill after bill passed on a straight party line vote, the atmosphere of futility grew. The era Hebl described nostalgically, of public-spirited, bipartisan respect for the institutions of government seemed about as far away as the dinosaurs.

But then, in the late afternoon, all action stopped. The Republicans halted the floor session for a partisan caucus. And a few hours later, they emerged with Vos’ big announcement. 

“I got a letter from Rebecca Kleefisch, talking about Lincoln Hills and the importance of us taking some kind of an action on Lincoln Hills,” Vos announced from the podium in the Assembly parlor, flanked by Republican legislators. 

Screenshot from Kleefisch’s campaign announcement of her walking streets of Kenosha

It was because of Kleefisch — former lieutenant governor under Scott Walker and Vos’ chosen candidate to run against Evers for governor in 2022 — that there would be a breakthrough after all, on the bipartisan bill to close Lincoln Hills, Vos said.

Taking a shot at Evers, and doing his best to shift the credit for the compromise to Kleefisch, Vos declared, “It’s so common with Gov. Evers to be inept. Nothing surprises me any longer.”

The effort to close Lincoln Hills, he added, “really was started by Gov. Walker,” who “unfortunately” lost to Evers.

“Gov. Evers basically does nothing over the course of the next three years. And here we sit today,” Vos said. “He did not bother to call. Has anybody here received a call from Gov. Evers asking us to do something at Lincoln Hills?” (Never mind Evers’ two rounds of budget proposals to close the facility, including millions for a new facility that Republicans rejected.)

“So I guess it’s again on the Republicans in the Legislature to lead with a governor who continues to fail,” Vos added. “So what we’re going to do today is bring forward a proposal that again, shows that the state of Wisconsin is being led by people like Rebecca Kleefisch.”

Kleefisch, of course, is the candidate Vos anointed before, to his great annoyance, other, Trumpier candidates jumped in the race, with supporters who have been coming to the Capitol chanting “Toss Vos!”

Moments later the bill to close Lincoln Hills passed the Assembly unanimously. The chamber erupted in applause. It now goes back to the Senate with some minor amendments, where it is almost certain to pass.

So there you have it. The Trump base got their elections bills. Evers got a kick in the teeth. And Kleefisch got the credit, somehow, for closing Lincoln Hills. At least, that’s how it worked out according to the complicated machinations of Robin Vos. 

In the real world, the good news is Evers is still in office, for now, to veto all those bad elections bills. And the kids at Lincoln Hills will finally see some movement on closing that terrible institution.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.

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