News Column

Wis. Lawmakers Open New Session With GOP in Control

Jan. 7, 2013

Jason Stein and Patrick Marley

Lawmakers will begin their next two-year session in the state Capitol on Monday as Republicans regain control of the Senate and increase their majority in the Assembly.

As lawmakers are sworn in, the Legislature's GOP leaders say their agenda includes measures to cut the income tax; reduce rules for opening mines in the state; cut other regulations on businesses; and reform schools. Republicans say that will create jobs, but Democrats say they're wary that the economic priorities will be overshadowed by divisive bills on voting rules and social issues such as abortion.

GOP lawmakers are returning to the statehouse with 18 members in the Senate to the Democrats' 15 and with 59 members in the Assembly to the Democrats' 39, with one seat open.

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) is once again taking over as Senate majority leader and Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is being installed as Assembly speaker.

Lawmakers are to be sworn in at 2 p.m. by state Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack, who is running for re-election in April. Earlier in the day, freshmen Assembly Democrats will be sworn in during a more personalized ceremony by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Vos will replace outgoing Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon), who decided not to seek re-election so he could run for U.S. Senate. Fitzgerald came up short in the four-way GOP primary in August.

With Vos' election as speaker comes a new dynamic between the Assembly and Senate. For most of the last session, the two houses were run by brothers Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald. Republicans will again run both houses this session but without the familial tie that some observers said helped the Senate and Assembly work together during a tumultuous time. That said, Vos so far has received high marks from Republican senators for his ability to work with them.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said he did expect to see differences in the relations between the two houses with one of the Fitzgerald brothers gone.

"It'll have a significant impact no doubt about it," Barca said.

With Gov. Scott Walker at the helm, Republicans opened last session with a bill to all but end collective bargaining for public workers. The measure sparked massive protests and prompted Senate Democrats to leave the state for three weeks in an attempt to halt the bill, but it ultimately passed. Walker, who last year survived a recall over the collective bargaining limits, has said he does not plan to offer similarly divisive legislation this session.

Monday's inauguration will give Republicans complete control of state government again, something they enjoyed for most of the last session. Republicans lost control of the Senate after a June 2012 recall election gave Democrats a one-vote margin. The victory for Democrats was in many ways symbolic because lawmakers had finished meeting for the session by that time.

Even before they lost the Senate in 2012, Republicans had faced some challenges. They were unable to pass a mining bill in March because Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) voted against it along with all Democrats. Now, Republicans will have a more comfortable two-vote margin in that chamber, and mining is again one of their top priorities.

Scott Fitzgerald said he hoped to pass a mining bill in the Senate by mid-March. He said he expected some significant changes to what lawmakers considered last session, and that those could possibly draw the votes of Schultz or some Democrats. He said Republicans had not yet decided what specific changes they would make.

He conceded that a lawsuit over the legislation once it passes is "inevitable" and said he expected difficult discussions with the Bad River band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, which is located near the proposed mine site and ardently opposed to it.

"It's a long shot" to get the tribe's support, Fitzgerald said. "It's going to be difficult to ever get them on board with the piece of legislation."

Tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. confirmed as much in a statement Monday before a news conference in Milwaukee to address the mining legislation.

"We find it remarkable that legislators are pushing legislation drafted by mining interests to deregulate treatment of waters, lands and impacts to the environment," Wiggins said. "Our visit to Milwaukee is to remind Wisconsinites that things like access to clean drinking water, clean air, and healthy fish and game are inherent human rights that no lawmaker can give away."

In the Assembly, Republicans will hold a commanding majority, just as they did last session. The one vacant seat is an overwhelmingly GOP district and will be filled in a special election in April; it was created in December when then-Rep. Paul Farrow (R-Village of Pewaukee) was elected to the Senate in a special election.

Leaders of both parties talked Monday of working together but beneath the gloss of bipartisanship the rough edges of future disagreements were visible.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said he wanted to work with Republicans but warned that they shouldn't push their mandate too far. He said the redrawing of legislative districts helped GOP lawmakers keep and win majorities despite President Barack Obama solidly carrying the state.

"It's a gerrymandered mandate. It doesn't have the support of the entire state of Wisconsin," Larson said of Republicans' agenda.

Scott Fitzgerald disputed that claim, saying Republicans followed the law in drawing the districts. "It's Monday-morning quarterbacking by the minority party," he said of Larson's comments on the districts.

Larson and Barca had reservations about the income tax cut being proposed by Republicans. Larson said he first wanted to see lawmakers make up the nearly $800 million in cuts to public schools that Republicans made over the current two-year budget to balance a projected $3 billion shortfall last session. Barca said that before they cut taxes for others, lawmakers should first undo the nearly $50 million in income tax increases that Republicans made last session by lowering two tax credits for the working poor and low-income homeowners.

There are 25 newcomers in the Assembly and three new members in the Senate, including Farrow, who won his seat last month in a special election and has already been sworn in.

Other new lawmakers from the area include Milwaukee Democrats Sen. Nikiya Harris, Rep. Mandela Barnes, Rep. Evan Goyke, Rep. La Tonya Johnson, and Rep. Dan Riemer as well as Republicans Reps. Rob Hutton and Joe Sanfelippo.

Source: (c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by MCT Information Services

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