Wisconsin’s Legislature Laziest in U.S.?
Other states with full-time legislators have met 18 times more frequently than in Wisconsin.
It was back on March 12 that Governor Tony Evers declared a public health emergency in Wisconsin. Since then we’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic grow into one of the worst health emergencies in U.S. history, while causing an economic slump that is the worst since the Great Depression. In late May came another huge national issue, an eruption of Black Lives Matter Protests after the death of George Floyd, which has grown into one of the biggest civil rights battles since those of the 1960s.
It’s a crisis for both the nation and this state, yet the Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature hasn’t met since mid-April, has repeatedly rejected Evers’ calls for a special session and clearly intends not to meet until next year.
Wisconsin has been “the least active full-time state legislative body in the country since states began taking measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” an analysis by WisPolitics.com found.
Most states have part-time legislators who are paid much less than the $52,000 annual salary, full benefits and generous per-diem expenses paid to Wisconsin lawmakers. Wisconsin is among just 10 states with full-time legislatures, as defined by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NNCSL), and legislators in the nine other such states “on average have met 18 times more frequently than their Wisconsin counterparts” since Evers first declared a public health emergency in March.
Wisconsin’s Legislature has met just once since that declaration versus 58 meetings in Michigan, 57 in Massachusetts, 43 in Hawaii, 37 in California, 33 in Pennsylvania and Alaska, 30 in New York, 23 in Ohio and nine in Illinois.
Two other neighboring states, Iowa and Minnesota, both fall under the NCSL’s hybrid full-time/part-time definition and “Minnesota lawmakers have met on the floor 62 times since March 12, while the Iowa Legislature met 17 times in that period,” the analysis found.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, (R-Rochester), responded to Wispolitics by noting that Democrats agreed to the number of floor days for the Legislative, but that was well before the pandemic and these other issues exploded. She also noted that seven of the nine other full-time legislatures are in states with an annual budget, a process requiring more floor sessions.
But this is about more than a budget. As Britt Cudaback, a spokesperson for Evers charged, “Republicans in Wisconsin have refused to take COVID-19 seriously from the beginning and continue to be unfazed by this crisis even after more than 50 reported COVID-19 deaths in three days… Wisconsinites deserve elected officials who will put politics aside and show up to work to do the right thing.”
Democratic lawmakers have condemned the “do nothing Legislature,” as they’ve dubbed it.
The real reason the Legislature isn’t meeting was given away by Vos: because the Senate refuses to meet. As Urban Milwaukee contributor Steven Walters recently reported, “about 150 Assembly-passed bills and resolutions… died when legislators went home after one-day April sessions. With no signal from Senate leaders that they want to negotiate deals on any of those 150 items, Vos said there is no reason for the Assembly to reconvene.”
In essence, Vos was throwing Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald under the bus for the Legislature not meeting, while adding 150 other reasons, beyond the pandemic, recession and racial protests, for the Legislature to get to work. Fitzgerald, you see, has been running for Congress to succeed retiring Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, and doesn’t want to bother with the legislative job he is leaving, even though Senate Republican Patrick Testin of Stevens Point has urged the Senate to meet.
For that matter Republican state senator Steve Nass of Whitewater has urged the Senate to convene to rescind Evers mask mandate, something the Legislature has full power to do, rather than asking the courts to usurp that power and overrule the governor’s order. But Fitzgerald has remained unmoved and unmotivated to convene the sleeping Senate he is leaving behind.
Of course that is the other reason that Fitzgerald and Vos don’t want to convene the Legislature. Because they know that most people in Wisconsin support the actions Evers has taken on the pandemic, and they’re trying to duck any controversial issues, while trying to get as many Republicans elected as possible this November.
Elsewhere across America legislators believe it’s their job to legislate. In Wisconsin the goal is to get reelected and then extend those gerrymandered districts for another 10 years so you can continue to maintain power with a minority of state votes.