MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP leaders have launched a push to ram several years’ worth of conservative agenda items through the Legislature this spring before recall elections threaten to end the party’s control of state government.
Republicans, in a rapid sequence of votes over the next eight weeks, plan to legalize concealed weapons, deregulate the telephone industry, require voters to show photo identification at the polls, expand school vouchers and undo an early release for prisoners.
Lawmakers may also act again on Walker’s controversial plan stripping public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights. An earlier version, which led to massive protest demonstrations at the Capitol, has been left in limbo by legal challenges.
“Everything’s been accelerated,” said Republican Rep. Gary Tauchen, who is working on the photo ID bill. “We’ve got a lot of big bills we’re trying to get done.”
The speed-up is the latest move in a tumultuous legislative session that followed last fall’s midterm elections in which Republicans won the governorship and control of both houses of the Legislature. In other states where conservatives won major victories, such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan, the GOP has moved more deliberatively.
Walker got off to a fast start in January, passing a slew of measures before he unveiled a two-year budget designed to plug a $3.6 billion shortfall. That legislation, involving deep cuts to a wide range of programs, was expected to consume months. Other measures were on tap for next year. But a three-week boycott by Democrats in the winter and recall efforts targeting nine legislators have changed the strategy.
“They know there’s a very strong possibility their days of controlling every level of government are numbered,” Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca said. “You’re moving forward huge pieces of legislation that dramatically change the direction and traditions and values of this state. Generally, doing that takes much longer.”
Recall campaigns likely will force six Republican senators to defend their seats this summer. Three Democrats may also be on recall ballots. A net victory of three seats would give the Democrats control of the Senate, which the GOP now controls 19-14. The first elections are scheduled for July 12.
At least publically, Wisconsin Republicans deny they’re rushing legislation for fear of losing their majority.
“Right now, I don’t foresee (losing the majority),” Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, I’m sure it will be in the back of your mind, but you’ll have to see how that plays out later this summer.”
But Rep. Robin Vos, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, which will attempt to handle two months of budget legislation in half the usual time, acknowledged, “It’s a factor. For the budget, yeah, I want to get it done by June 30.”
Four of the 12 Republicans on the committee are targets of the recall.
The blitz has created an almost frantic atmosphere in the Capitol.
Major bills, like the one to legalize concealed weapons, were introduced just days before public hearings. A major revision to the photo ID proposal was released late on a Friday afternoon, just four days before a committee passed it, prompting complaints from the nonpartisan board that oversees elections.
“There has been no time for the careful evaluation and vetting needed to ensure the best options for voters and election officials is enacted,” wrote Kevin Kennedy, head of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board.
Republican leaders scheduled a full Assembly vote on a bill deregulating the telecommunications industry only a week after a hearing, leaving little opportunity for public comment.
Walker said his plan to move his agenda is unchanged. “From our standpoint, it’s really been about being aggressive from the beginning,” he said in an interview.
At the same time lawmakers are pushing through conservative policies, they will be wrestling with Walker’s budget proposal. Walker wants to cut roughly $1 billion from schools and local governments, split the Madison campus from the University of Wisconsin System and slow the growth of Medicaid by $500 million.
The Legislature also may try to quickly pass a redistricting plan, a politically charged process that would reshape congressional and legislative districts with new 2010 census data.
If the Legislature votes again on Walker’s plan stripping public workers of their union negotiating rights, it can sidestep the legal challenges to the first vote, which came after 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois to deprive the Senate of a quorum. Unions and Democrats claim the original vote violated the open meetings law and the state constitution’s quorum requirement. The case is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he and other leaders are just trying to make up the time lost during the earlier turmoil. “There is an expectation that some of these bills would be completed early on,” he said.