Before dropping a bomb on race-based scholarships, Wis. Republicans in the state assembly debated and voted on several other contentious bills late into the evening of Nov. 1. These included a “landlords’ rights” bill that prohibits local units of governments from establishing their own fair housing ordinances, a bill to reduce the amount of education required to be a school nurse, another one to allow school districts to discriminate against anyone with a felony conviction on their record whether or not the offense had anything to do with the job for which they are applying.
A lot of time was spent on debate and discussion of AB 319, a bill to allow cities and towns to reopen contracts with employees for the sole purpose of extracting more benefit concessions from them. This bill is necessary because Act 10, the infamous Budget Repair Bill that sparked massive protests last February and March, outlaws collective bargaining with public sector unions on anything other than cost of living wage increases.
Building on the theme of Republican hypocrisy he had been making all evening, Democratic minority leader Peter Barca stated, “This is a great illustration of the overreach of the complete elimination of collective bargaining passed earlier this year.” He added, “This is an absurdity! We want to regulate from this body when a local unit of government can enter into a contract with a group of employees. In a free and open society, contracts are what make our society work.” He asked the Republicans to please drop the term “local control” from their ideology and vocabulary since they had voted against the concept so many times this year.
Ten additional bills were passed before 11 p.m., and then out of nowhere came Amendment 2 to AB 142, grinding proceedings to a halt.
What would have been a unanimous or near unanimous voice vote approving the bill that made minor changes to the Talent Incentive Grant program – a state-funded scholarship program that grants up to $1,800 a year for higher education expenses to approximately 4,300 needy students a year - turned into a filibuster.
Democratic representative Peggy Krusik brought Amendment 1 to the bill, which would have raised the income caps of families of students eligible for the grant to 4.5 times the poverty rate. Her proposal was shot down by representatives on both sides of the aisle, but not before Republican Caucus leader Joan Ballweg discussed with Krusik altering the amendment and bringing it back in a different form while the body stood informal.
When the amendment came back to the floor, it was no longer about raising income caps. It completely eliminated one of the major categories of eligibility for the grant: race and ethnicity. That, apparently, was the straw that broke the camel’s back of the Democrats’ willingness to do business as usual.
It seemed that months of pent up frustration resulting from extremely divisive and partisan political maneuvering over the past year erupted from the Democratic side of the aisle. For two and a half hours, Democrats spoke out against the amendment itself, and the process by which it was being taken up.
Rep. Elizabeth Coggs of Milwaukee stood to table the amendment, immediately followed by Mark Pocan, who said, “I hope you have the fortitude to debate this.” Spewing indignation he added, “Stand up and explain why you think bigotry in the year 2011 makes sense!”
Rep. Tamara Grigsby exploded, “It’s shameful that the lady from our side offered it, but earlier in the session you rejected her first amendment because you wanted to respect the committee process.” She continued, “However, when we have the opportunity to discriminate against somebody or take away someone’s rights, to hell with the process, to hell with the rules, it’s just going to be the way you want it to be.”
At 1:30 a.m. Democratic Caucus leader Kelda Helen-Roys moved to break for partisan caucus. She expressed the frustration of many when she said, “We’ve done things this week exacerbating (racial disparity) problems by making more and more things felonies, and by prohibiting people who have offended from putting their lives back together. It’s a vicious, racist cycle and I think that if this is a debate we want to have, we should have it openly.”
It was 4:15 a.m. before the assembly reconvened for another three and half hours of filibustering.
“If you want to know why there’s a massive recall effort on it’s because every decision (Republicans have made) has been about power, ideology and jamming through control of the legislature and the state,” said Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh. “The idea that we’re going to ignore reality and live in the world we want is ridiculous. Your biggest problem nationwide is the High School dropout rate, and it’s worse for minorities. Ignoring this problem with a 30-second debate on a misguided amendment is crazy.”
In the end, Democratic leadership ended the filibuster with a vote on the amendment. It passed 57 – 34, but the bill did not pass the 2/3 vote required for suspension of the rules to allow for a third and final reading.
The session was adjourned at 8:12 a.m. Together with the remainder of Tuesday’s agenda items that did not get handled today, AB 142 will be
taken up on Thursday.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.