Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Last Call for the Legislature

The rush to end session and go home for the year results in some ugly legislation.

By - Feb 17th, 2020 12:02 pm
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

The chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee apologized, saying it was the first time in his 14 years in the Legislature that he had to rush important bills through his committee. Normally, Republican Rep. Gary Tauchen explained, committee chairs hold a public hearing on a bill, wait a week or more to allow for possible changes to be considered, and only then schedule a vote.

But Tauchen’s charge on Tuesday was to hold public hearings on several bills to help struggling farmers – a priority of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and all legislators – and immediately vote on them, clearing them for further debate.

“We’re on a very tight time frame,” Tauchen, a dairy farmer from Bonduel, explained before votes approving the bills. “Hopefully, I won’t have to do this again.”

The Legislature is in the final weeks of its two-year session. It’s the ready-fire-aim stage of the process. It isn’t pretty, or rational. It’s the “stuff the sausage” phase of lawmaking.

Republicans who control the Assembly say they plan to end this month,  although they might have to return in March for some final votes.  Republicans who control the Senate say they want to meet in mid-March and then go home for the year.

And since both houses of the Legislature must pass the same bill for it to become law, that means whatever the Assembly has passed by Thursday has one last chance – possibly  by March 20 – to pass the Senate.

So, if the Capitol was a tavern, it’s last call.

Final weeks of a session are clogged with committee hearings, as legislators and special-interest groups fight to move their pet causes. Some committees met in the Assembly chamber because no other rooms were available.

Last Thursday, for example, the Assembly Health Committee held a public hearing on a controversial eleventh-hour push to amend the state Constitution – a process that takes three or more years. The “personhood” amendment would eliminate the word “born” from this phrase in the Constitution: “All people are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Pro-Life Wisconsin, which is pushing the change, says it would “extend the inalienable right to life already found in the Wisconsin Constitution to all preborn children from the beginning of their lives.”

Debating the change would restart abortion wars, however.

Capitol news conferences are staged almost every hour. They include issues that have a chance of becoming law and other show-and-tell media events on subjects everyone in the Capitol knows are dead.

And, could there be some election-year traps being set for legislators whose opponents think they can be beat in Nov. 3 elections? You bet’cha.

All this explains why a relatively simple bill setting up a process to test rape kits with the consent of victims, and funding those tests so no years-long backlog occurs again, picked up two hitchhiking amendments:

*Requiring law officers to report to federal Immigration and Customs (ICE) if a person they arrest for sexual assault is in the country illegally.

*Requiring the victim to be allowed to enroll in Choice programs, allowing K-12 students to attend private schools at state expense.

Those provisions had to be added to “get the yeses” of enough Assembly Republicans to pass the original bill, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Steffen, of Green Bay, admitted. Republicans control the Assembly by a 66-33 margin.

“I didn’t want to go another session without getting [testing of rape kits] done,” Steffen added. “I don’t want legislation that could be very impactful to not get across a goal line simply because it’s not 100 percent.”

Translation: The end-of-session crush made me accept the two controversial changes. The end-of-session train is leaving the station, and I want my bill to be on it.

Democratic Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul said adding those two changes was a “cynical legislative ploy” that will kill the bill. “(It’s) exactly what people cannot stand about politics … elected officials who are pretending to address an issue when in fact what they’re doing is blocking the passage of legislation that’s going to help survivors of sexual assault,”Kaul added.

The “last call” at the Capitol recalls a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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