Republicans in Wisconsin state government are scrambling to pass dozens of pieces of legislation before the clock runs out on their reign of impunity. As cracks start to become evident in the thin veneer of party discipline that has remained more or less intact for the past ten months, the sense of urgency amongst those championing this agenda is becoming more and more palpable.
On Monday, the Senate Committee on Transportation and Elections held a seven-hour hearing on ten separate bills. While the early hours were dedicated to transportation bills, including one clarifying the definition of a bicycle, another that increases penalties for people driving with a suspended or revoked license, and yet another having to do with creating an elected office for Comptroller of Milwaukee County, most of the time was spent on five bills surrounding election processes.
Most testimony was focused on two bills: SB 268, which tinkers with senate recall procedures in light of the extensive legislative redistricting plan passed earlier this year, and SB 270, which requires people collecting signatures for recall petitions to have their signature notarized. Kevin Kennedy, director of the Government Accountability Board, was on hand “for informational purposes only” to answer questions about the bills. Since being called on the carpet by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules for politically unpopular opinions given about voter IDs and recall petitions this past September, Kennedy has been trotted out by legislative Republicans “for informational purposes” to support their positions.
In the second significant break with his party, Republican state senator Dale Schultz has come out against SB 268, which presumably would benefit him should he be the subject of a recall campaign later this month. The first step he took out of line was when he cast the lone vote against Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill in March. On Monday, Schultz told an AP reporter, “I’m not going to vote for (SB 268) because the people who sent me to Madison are the ones who should decide whether I ought to be recalled or not.”
That was the same message repeated during the hearing by Democratic senators Lena Taylor, Jon Erpenbach, and Spencer Coggs. Their testimony was two-pronged. First, they argued that the recalls should not be conducted based on the new, gerrymandered district maps that are currently the subject of a federal lawsuit. Secondly, like Schultz, they contended that in a recall election, it should be the people who voted them into office to decide their fate rather than people located within the new district borders who had nothing to do with selecting them as their representatives.
Taylor’s comment that the bill “reeks of political corruption, hackery and power grabs,” prompted Sen. Coggs to ask for clarification. “Senator Taylor, you confuse me,” he said. “What do you mean by hackery? Hacking away at the constitution or political hacks? Confusion reigns, and I think that is the intention here.”
The most eloquent testimony against the bill came from fair elections advocate Bryan Bliss. Putting all of these bills in a broader political context he said, “The reason recalls are moving ahead so vehemently is that the bonds of public trust have been broken.” Directing his comments to Committee Chair Mary Lazich, he said, “Senator Lazich, we went to your district and there were lockstep Republicans who -- you shook their hands, you took their money -- 20,000 of them wanted you recalled because you betrayed their trust.”
Bliss pointed out the Republicans’ ironic and cynical use of the terms fairness and disenfranchisement. “If you want to stop disenfranchising voters, put your money where your mouth is. Repeal this voter ID sham, take back the redistricting maps to a situation that is bipartisan, where it does consult with the communities that are supposed to be represented. That is a way of not disenfranchising voters.”
When it came his turn to testify, senator Glenn Grothman, famous for calling protesters “slobs” last spring, said in his typically arrogant and offhanded tone, “I think we should whip this through the committee, vote on it tomorrow, and whip it through the Senate on Wednesday or whenever.”
Speaking to SB 270, the bill requiring a person gathering signatures on recall petitions to have their own signature notarized, Kevin Kennedy said, “This bill won't have an impact on current recalls unless it is in law and published before Nov. 15.” That’s the day that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has announced it will begin the recall of Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Klefisch and possibly several other republican senators. In order for this to happen, the bill would need to be passed by both houses this week and signed by Walker before November 5.
In his testimony, Bryan Bliss highlighted Article XIII, §12 (7) of the Wisconsin Constitution: “This section shall be self-executing and mandatory. Laws may be enacted to facilitate its operation but no law shall be enacted to hamper, restrict or impair the right of recall.” Pointing out that both SB 268 and SB 270 are in direct violation of this constitutional provision, Bliss added, “Recalls are about keeping you accountable… When you look in the mirror you say, wow, we’ve betrayed Wisconsin and if we don’t cheat and change the law we’re going to get recalled. This is just covering your own assets.”
This week’s legislative and committee calendars are chock full of asset-covering proposals. Let the scramble begin.
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.