On the last day of the fall legislative session, the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State Assembly spent more than 12 hours passing a spate of socially regressive laws that roll back voting rights, public access to land surrounding a proposed mining site, and authorize the state to fundraise for an anti-abortion group by issuing "Choose Life" license plates.
Lawmakers also passed two constitutional amendments: One that makes it more difficult to recall elected officials and another that changes the State Supreme Court's process around how the chief justice is selected.
Before the Assembly took up the agenda, a group of Democratic Party freshmen moved to suspend the rules and take up a measure that would change the legislative redistricting process. The effort comes in the wake of an extremely contentious, partially illegal redistricting process in 2011 where lawyers for Republicans drew up redistricting maps in secret and required legislators to sign secrecy oaths about the contours of the maps.
That process and the resulting maps have been challenged in court. During the proceedings Republicans and their lawyers refused to produce relevant documents until they were ordered to do so by the court. In that process, it was discovered that hundreds of thousands of files were deleted from the computers in question.
Rep. Stephen Smith (D-Shell Lake) summed up the group's view on the gerrymandered districts saying that democracy no longer exists "when politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their representatives." The bill was tabled on a party line vote.
On the constitutional amendment to further restrict Wisconsin's already tough standards for recalling state elected officials, Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) pushed back hard. "If you don't want to be recalled, represent your constituents!" she said. "I can understand why you're concerned about recalls given your records. It must be horrible to realize that you can only win elections when people don't vote."
Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) pointed out that historically, constitutions are amended to enhance and protect people's rights, not to restrict or remove them.
Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) called the constitutional amendment to change the way a chief justice is selected for the Wisconsin Supreme Court from seniority to an election every 2 years by the seven justices a potentially unconstitutional abuse of power. "You're trying to take control of the judiciary," he said. Both measures have to be passed by both houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then they are put to a statewide referendum.
Republicans defended what Democrats called voter suppression bills by raising the spectre of "voter fraud," even though there have only been a handful of documented cases in the state. This is the second time around for a voter id bill after the first one was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. The bill's authors hope that tweaks to avoid questions about the id requirement amounting to a poll tax will allow this version to pass constitutional muster.
Proposals to curtail absentee voting hours, to restrict how people in extended care facilities can vote, and to allow more invasive "poll watching" practices all passed on party-line votes.
Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) pointed out that the effect of these measures would have a disproportionate impact on poor people and people of color who live in urban areas, calling the collection of bills "Jim Crow for the 21st century." And Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) asked, "why aren't Republicans trying to persuade people to vote for them with their policies? Why are they trying to suppress the vote?" The bills were messaged to the state Senate, where their future is uncertain.
The Assembly also passed a bill that allows Gogebic Taconite to close off public access land without paying the approximately $800,000 in penalties for removing it from Managed Forest Law. The bill was modified by the Senate to allow the company to restrict access from 600 feet on either side of the access road that leads to their proposed bulk sampling sites.
Opponents of what is proposed to be the largest open pit taconite iron mine in the world located on the shores of Lake Superior believe that the law is designed to intimidate and discourage independent scientists from conducting independent analyses of the rocks and wetlands in the area. Already geologists have confirmed the presence of an abundance of grunerite, which contains a particularly nasty form of asbestos fiber. GTac lobbyist Bob Seitz has either denied or downplayed the significance of the finding.
GTac lobbyist Bob Seitz, CEO Bill Williams and Engineer Tim Myers. Photo: Rebecca Kemble.
Proponents of the bill insist that the measure has nothing to do with restricting public access, but that it is required for worker safety. To make this point, Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) performed a dramatic reading of a complaint lodged against a group of people who confronted GTac contract workers at a sample drilling site last summer who climbed on equipment, threw tools and yelled at the workers. During this recitation he managed to use the word "terrorist" or "eco-terrorist" at least five times.
Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Ft. Atkinson) pointed out that there were no co-sponsors of the bill in the Assembly and wondered who was there to answer questions about it. He suggested that the extra desk on the Assembly floor be given to "the representative from GTac" so they can answer questions directly. Republican leaders have openly admitted that lawyers from the company wrote the massive mining deregulation bill that was the first law to be passed this year.
Others decried the giveaway of power and taxpayer money to GTac that the bill represents. Referring to Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) who has championed this and other mining-related bills, Rep. Chris Danou said, "GTac doesn't want to pay penalties to remove land from MFL so they get Taconite Tommy to write them another bill."
While the bill now heads to Governor Walker for signing, GTac's momentum seems to be stalled by local ordinances involving asbestos, blasting and bulk sampling activities, and their own failure to answer questions that regulators at the Department of Natural Resources asked them three months ago about their bulk sampling plan. The project cannot move forward without permits related to the plan, and the permits can't be granted until all the DNR's questions are answered.
After the mining bill was passed at around 10:30 p.m., the already stretched-too-thin veneer of collegiality in the chamber began to break down. Democrats tried to advance a resolution commemorating the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings -- a measure that had been passed unanimously in the Senate in September -- but Republican leaders tabled the resolution, wanting to get on with the 15 more bills ahead of them on the agenda.
Majority Leader Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha) then announced that they would be taking up the "Choose Life" license plate bill, even though there was a bipartisan agreement to not take it up at that time. Kramer said his decision was spurred by a comment one of the Democratic representatives made on Twitter, and his frustration that Democrats were wasting time with frivolous motions.
Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton) had worked hard on the compromise that had been abandoned. "It is truly worrisome to me that we have people in this body that act as if they're in middle school and high school and that they can change the rules whenever they want," she said to Kramer. "This is childish, stupid, asinine... We have spent a long time on this compromise, and I know that I can't trust any word that I hear from Republican leadership. That is a problem. "
At issue with the bill is the fact that the brand new "Choose Life Wisconsin," which would receive $15 for every license plate, has connections with organizations identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have also not been able to produce documentation proving they are an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
Reps. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) and Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) called out Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Kramer for abandoning their promises of bipartisanship on the issue.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos sits stone-faced as he is called out by Democrats for reneging on a negotiated compromise. Photo: Rebecca Kemble.
Zepnick said, "I'll call out Robin Vos, Bill Kramer and whomever I damn well please! Stand up and do your job!" before he was called out of order and his microphone was turned off.
The bill passed and is available for scheduling in the Senate next year.
Featured photo: Flickr user David Berkowitz, creative commons licensed.