- Views & Opinions
Wisconsin legislators will start their next two-year session with plenty of pomp and circumstance Tuesday but the honeymoon will end quickly as lawmakers dive into a thicket of divisive budget issues.
Some key things to know about the upcoming session:
Republicans rode President-elect Donald Trump’s momentum to their largest majorities in both the Senate and Assembly in decades. The GOP goes into the session with a 64-35 advantage in the Assembly, their largest since 1957, and a 20-13 edge in the Senate, their largest since 1971. Republicans re-elected Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to their leadership posts days after the results came in. Republicans have now held complete control of state government since Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011. The party will be free again to pass whatever it can agree upon internally.
The session kicks off Tuesday with legislators taking the oath of office. The day is full-fledged production, complete with corsages for lawmakers, prayers and judges swearing them in. Then come handshakes, back-slapping and photos with family members and other well-wishers.
Almost immediately. Republican Gov. Scott Walker gives his State of the State speech a week later, on Jan. 10.
Governors typically use the speech to outline their priorities and introduce new programs and initiatives, sending ripples cascading across the state.
In February he’s expected to introduce the executive version of the 2017-19 state budget.
Deliberations on the budget will consume the Legislature through mid-summer.
If the State of the State speech is a thunderstorm, the budget is a hurricane as both parties try to fund key constituencies or protect them from cuts.
The stage is already set for GOP infighting.
The hottest topic will be how to fund road projects. The state pays for roads with the transportation fund, which is built on gas tax revenue and vehicle registration fees.
The fund faces a $1 billion shortfall but Walker, who faces re-election in 2018, has said he won’t raise the gas tax or fees to make up the difference.
Instead he has said his budget will delay major projects and rely on borrowing.
Assembly Republicans have said the governor’s plan is a short-term political solution. They say all potential revenue increases should be on the table, including raising the gas tax and imposing tolls.
The governor also has promised to increase funding for the University of Wisconsin System after cutting it by $250 million and extending an in-state tuition freeze in the last budget.
But the system has become a popular punching bag for Republican lawmakers, raising questions about what, if anything, the system will end up getting.
Some GOP lawmakers are already saying the system doesn’t deserve any additional money as long as a course on racism called “The Problem of Whiteness” is offered as planned this spring at UW-Madison.
Budget deliberations will consume lawmakers until mid-summer, when the Legislature’s budget committee finalizes revisions and kicks it to the full Senate and Assembly for approval. After that, anything could happen.
Some Republicans have talked about preventing candidates with no chance of winning from requesting election recounts after the Green Party’s Jill Stein forced a pre-Christmas recount of Wisconsin’s presidential election that changed nothing. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has talked about limiting early voting times and locations, even though a federal judge struck down attempts to do just that last session.
Republicans also are expected to resurrect failed bills forcing transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth, and to allow concealed weapons in college classrooms and on school grounds.
Lawmakers also could be forced to redraw their district boundaries after a federal judge in November tossed out GOP-drawn lines. They also could be forced to grapple with the fallout if Trump repeals President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.
State of the State speech: Jan. 10.
First floor session: Jan. 17.
Governor’s budget introduction: Late February.
Final legislative budget approval: Late June or early July.
Last scheduled floor session: May 9, 2018.
The Wisconsin Legislature’s website, allows visitors to track bills’ progress. It also offers a list of all legislators, their phone numbers and their email addresses.