Steven Walters: What Vos, Fitzgerald will be fighting over next spring in state Legislature

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Steven Walters
Monday, November 18, 2013

The end of the regular fall legislative session sets up the 2014 wrestling match between the two top legislative Republicans—Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald—over what will and won’t pass the Legislature before lawmakers finally go home in the spring.

Leaders of both houses of the Legislature often have session-ending disagreements, as they try to leverage—or extort—each other into acting on bills that passed one house and must pass the other to become law.

Every session end brings its own outrage and drama; senators, for example, sometimes just go home, thumbing their noses at pending Assembly-passed bills.

The 2011-12 session saw fewer of those power struggles because the two top leaders were brothers—Scott Fitzgerald in the Senate and his younger brother, Jeff, as Assembly speaker.

But Jeff Fitzgerald is now a lobbyist, and Vos has moved ambitiously to make his own mark in his first 11 months as speaker.

Vos also leads a 57-member GOP caucus dominated by first- and second-term members who are not afraid of passing major, controversial changes. They don’t see the need—or don’t yet know how—to compromise with their tribal elders in the Senate. The 39 Assembly Democrats (three Assembly seats are vacant) can do little but protest and vote against Republicans’ priorities.

Sen. Fitzgerald has been in the Legislature more than twice as long as Vos, and some of the 18 Republican senators don’t share the zeal of new Assembly Republicans for many of the most controversial changes.

Five of those 18 GOP senators—including Fitzgerald—survived the unique crucible of a recall election in 2011-12. And 10 of the 18 are up for re-election next year. Although GOP senators say they are older and wiser, most Assembly Republicans are not impressed.

Think of any legislative session as a funnel, and only bills that pass one house or the other by Jan. 1 have a chance of emerging from that funnel before the session ends next spring.

Legislative leaders have said they may be in regular session a maximum of 27 days next year.

By March, Vos, Scott Fitzgerald and their respective caucuses will be fighting over:

Campaign finance laws: One Vos priority is an Assembly-passed bill doubling the amounts that donors can give candidates for governor and other state offices, including the Legislature, and making other changes. It has not gone anywhere in the Senate, however.

Voter ID: On the day a federal judge presided over a suit challenging a law requiring a photo ID to vote, the Assembly rewrote that same law to include provisions of an Indiana law.

Vos told reporters that the Indiana law had been ruled constitutional, so stealing its language amounts to buying insurance in case Wisconsin’s first photo ID law is ruled unconstitutional.

Fitzgerald, however, has said the Senate will wait on a court ruling before passing a new photo ID requirement.

Abortion: Bills to prohibit an abortion because of the gender of the fetus, and to stipulate procedures that may not be covered by public-employee health care plans, were scheduled to be debated in the Senate last week. Though votes were delayed, they remain on the “must pass” list of some Republicans.

Meanwhile, the Assembly picked a related fight by endorsing a new “Choose Life” license plate.

Higher speed limit: An Assembly-passed bill raising the maximum speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph is ideal end-of-session bargaining bait. If Fitzgerald can’t get the Assembly to act on one of his priorities, for example, drivers may not be going 70 mph anytime soon.

It’s also time to list bills that are dead.

Raw milk sales: A Senate committee rewrote, and then approved, a new version of a bill to legalize raw milk sales last week. But the compromise seemed to please neither side in the controversy, and Assembly leaders say the Senate must act on the issue first.

Common Core Standards: Some conservative Republicans want to delay, rewrite or repeal tougher national academic requirements being phased in for public schools. Leaders of the Assembly and Senate education committees oppose any change, however.

And the push to have a bipartisan panel draw new congressional and legislative districts every 10 years? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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