State GOP ending legislative session on self-serving political issues

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Despite the recent revelation that Wisconsin lost 10,000 jobs in 2015 — the biggest loss since the recession — Republican lawmakers returned to Madison after their holiday recess with everything but jobs on their minds.

Instead of employment, they continued focusing on anti-environmental laws and wrapping up their 2015 agenda, which included rolling back the reforms of the last century and returning to the days when government was shrouded in secrecy and conducted in backroom deals that made elected officials wealthy. The GOP apparently has nothing against big government when its members can pocket a slice of the proceeds. In fact, last year Republicans took multiple powers away from local governments and consolidated them at the state level, where they can pull all the strings and benefit from all the lobbyists’ largesse.

Republicans, who have complete control over every facet of a state government that’s consequently bereft of checks and balances, voted last year to ban prosecutors from using secretive John Doe investigative tactics to ferret out corruption. They reworked campaign finance laws to allow yet more dark money into the political process.

The GOP also has drawn up bills that would make it easier for big polluters and environmentally destructive developers to operate in the state. The law would ease the regulatory path for development on water bodies. It also would take away power from local governments by barring counties from enacting county-wide development bans. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he likes the property rights bill, which would force developers to grease state lawmakers’ palms for project approval — and prevent local residents and officials from opposing projects they don’t want.

In addition, the Senate seems set to pass  on Jan. 20 a bill that overhauls the state’s 110-year-old civil service system. The bill eliminates exams for applicants and allows hiring officials to oust workers so that each new governor could reward campaign supporters with state jobs. The civil service system was adopted to safeguard against such Chicago-style cronyism in state hiring practices. But Republican voters seem indifferent about the issue, which is being spun spuriously by right-wing leaders as “reform” that will improve state hiring practices.

With most of the self-serving portion of their agenda accomplished, GOP lawmakers will spend the next few months passing bills that appease the state’s far right. The goal: to shore up their conservative credentials and ward off potential tea party challengers in the August primaries.

They’ll have to move fast. The last floor debate days are scheduled for late April, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he wants his chamber to wrap up by the end of February. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hopes to finish in March.

Awaiting action is a proposal that would ban research using tissue from fetuses aborted after Jan. 1, 2015, and prohibit the commercial sale of fetal tissue. Scientists have said the measure could chill work on potentially life-saving cures and treatments. The law would also damage the burgeoning biomedical research economy in Madison, which is one of the state’s only economic success stories.

Republicans already have shored up their support among anti-choice voters by passing bills banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and stripping Planned Parenthood of $3.5 million in federal funding. The fetal tissue ban, although it would destroy jobs, could energize religious right voters even more.

Also on the agenda is an Assembly bill limiting the ability of transgender citizens to use public restrooms. It would force transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender at birth rather than their chosen gender expression. Opponents insist the bill violates federal civil rights law, but it’s a red-meat issue for Christian fundamentalists.

Despite the fact that the United States recorded more than one mass shooting for every day in 2015, the GOP also wants to allow guns in more public places. Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Devin LeMahieu introduced a measure that would allow people to carry concealed weapons into college buildings. They say the legislation would make campuses safer.

University of Wisconsin leaders oppose the bill. Vos said the measure probably isn’t going anywhere in his house. Fitzgerald hinted the bill was all but dead in the Senate as well, saying it would be tough to take it up without Assembly support.

Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate said they’re bracing for a frustrating four months. 

“(The Republicans are) just so brazen in terms of their willingness to feather their own nest without doing anything significant for the people of this state,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said.

Vos countered that he has created three task forces addressing how to bolster resources for dementia, urban education and preparing young people for the workforce. He also pointed out the state budget gives schools $69 million more in 2016–17.

Meanwhile, more and more businesses are leaving the state, along with talented young people who see no future in a state that’s racing backward on a path greased with corruption.

This analysis relies in large part on AP reporting.