Legislative Session Passed Historic Changes
Republicans say voters will reward them this fall. Democrats are preparing attacks.
What a legislative session it was.
Don’t expect an opinion here on the important changes Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators approved in the 2015-16 session, which ended last week. As an informed voter, you make that call.
Instead, this observation: Republicans last session stayed on their six-year roll of making big changes – changes they say voters will reward them for passing in the Nov. 8 elections. Those elections will fill 16 of the 33 Senate seats, and all 99 Assembly seats. Last session, Republicans controlled the Senate, 19-14, and the Assembly, 63-36.
For their part, Democrats say Republicans last session continued their overreach for power, fired the cop on the elections and ethics beat for doing its job, and continued to ignore Wisconsin’s middle class. Democrats say they will be proven right on Nov. 8.
That’s a brief preview of the sound-bites you will be hearing from all sides – Democrats, Republicans and third-party independent groups – all summer and fall.
And what specifically will they be arguing about? Here are the biggest changes approved by the 2015-16 legislative session:
*Abolishing the Government Accountability Board (GAB): Republicans fired the seven retired judges who had enforced elections, campaign finance and ethics laws since 2008. On July 1, GAB will be replaced with separate partisan commissions on elections and ethics.
Republicans said they abolished the GAB after it joined “witch hunt” secret probes of Gov. Scott Walker and those that helped him survive a 2012 recall vote. Republicans said the GAB sided with overzealous local prosecutors who terrorized innocent Walker supporters. A divided Supreme Court, siding with Republican legislators, shut down the probes. But Democrats insisted that GAB, created on a bipartisan vote after the old Elections Board refused to investigate on-the-job campaigning by legislative aides and their bosses, was only doing its job when it joined the probes begun by local district attorneys.
*Limiting John Doe probes: Republicans considered the secret John Doe investigations of Walker and his supporters so partisan that they narrowed the scope of those probes in the future. As a result, John Does can now only investigate crimes that do not include violations of campaign finance or ethics laws.
*New Milwaukee Bucks arena: Since no state or local elected official wants to be blamed for Wisconsin losing a pro sports team, Walker, legislators from both parties, and Milwaukee city and county officials cobbled together $250 million in public funds for a new downtown Bucks arena. The aid package capped public funds at $250 million, which could pay half the arena’s cost. Since both Republicans and Democrats voted for the package, it may go unmentioned in the pre-election ad blitz.
*$250 million two-year cut in state aid to UW System: UW System took a symbolic, $250-million hit in the 2015-17 budget, forcing layoffs, buyout packages and unfilled positions on each of the 26 campuses. As a result, $2 billion or just 17 percent of the UW System’s $11.8-billion two-year total budget now comes from state government.
Asked what he hopes voters will like from the last session, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald offered a different list: A new right-to-work law. Partially repealing “prevailing wage” laws that specified wages of construction workers on government projects. A new civil-service system that will hire, fire and discipline state workers quicker and end the practice of veteran workers who had political appointments “bumping” workers with less seniority out of their jobs. New checks on workers’ compensation payments.
Those were four “major reforms that reach back in history in Wisconsin,” Fitzgerald added.
But Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling offered this post-session lament: “Wisconsin families are in a worse position today than they were five years ago. Many of the challenges facing Wisconsin families have been ignored by Republican leaders, including the student loan debt crisis, crumbling infrastructure, underfunded classrooms, stagnant worker wages and a shrinking middle class.”
Voters, over to you.