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Recall-torn Senate looks undrivable

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Steven Walters
March 26, 2012

If the Wisconsin Senate were a car, it would be up on cinder blocks right now. With its hood up.


The resignation of first-term Republican Sen. Pam Galloway of Wausau left the Senate in a tie: 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats. Galloway resigned to help care for two ill family members immediately after the Senate ended its 2011-12 legislative session.


Sure, the Senate has been in that partisan knot before—in 1998, ’95 and twice in 1993.


But it’s never had its steering so broken and the engine wiring burned up.


And a dizzying set of events over the next eight months make it likely the Senate will run only once—to respond to federal judges' orders to redraw two new Milwaukee Assembly districts—before January, when the 2013-14 session convenes. Nobody knows whether Republicans or Democrats will be driving then.


What are those events?


--After the April 3 spring election, one of two veteran Democratic senators from Milwaukee—Spencer Coggs or Tim Carpenter—may resign to take the job of city of Milwaukee treasurer. That pays $114,000 a year, or more than double the $49,943 salary of lawmakers. If the one who gets elected Milwaukee treasurer doesn’t resign, they’ll be open to a “double dipping” charge—especially since the Senate won’t even be meeting.


That will make the score in the Senate 16-15, Republicans. For a few days at least.


Republicans had a 19-14 margin of control for eight months last year. Then, two of them, Sens. Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke, were recalled and replaced by Democrats Jessica King and Jennifer Shilling.


--On June 5—barring any last-minute lawsuit—recall elections will target three Republican senators: Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau; Van Wanggaard of Racine and Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls. Another June 5 election will fill the two years remaining on Galloway’s term.


If Democrats win just one of those seats, Democrats will control the Senate, 17-15. If Democrats win two of those recall elections, they will have an 18-14 margin in the Senate. Temporarily.


Your head hurt yet? Hang on because the numbers are likely to change in November.


--On Nov. 6, regular elections are scheduled for 16 Senate seats—seats now held by 10 Democrats and six Republicans. A 17th election, a special one to fill Carpenter’s seat if he becomes Milwaukee city treasurer, could also be on that day.


But the musical chairs could continue.


Last week, opponents of two senators not scheduled to be up until 2014, Democrat Bob Jauch and Republican Dale Schultz, took the first steps in what could lead to two more recall elections.


Jauch and Schultz are being targeted for not voting for new mining-siting regulations that would have allowed Gogebic Taconite to apply for permits to develop an open-pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties. Mine backers say it could have been a $1.5 billion investment and resulted in hundreds—and eventually thousands—of new jobs.


If recall elections targeting Schultz and Jauch are held this year, there will be 15 Senate recall elections in a 17-month period.


In the first 163 years that Wisconsin was a state, there were four recall elections targeting state senators.


How might a 16-16 Senate respond to the federal judges' Thursday order to redraw two new Assembly districts in Milwaukee?


In 2000, former Wisconsin Senate President Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat and the longest-serving state legislator in the nation, said Senate leaders in 1993 wrote a share-the-power operating manual. Risser has served in the Legislature for 55 years.


“The modified (Senate) rules are very simple,” Risser then wrote in a national magazine, Stateline, circulated among legislators.


Risser explained: “…In the case of an evenly divided Senate membership, the committees are evenly represented by the two major political parties.


“Second, the modified rules call for equal membership on the Senate Committee on Organization, which serves as an administrative policymaking body.


“Finally, it was agreed that in case of an equal membership between the two major political parties, selected members from the former majority party would continue as committee chairs and as Senate president.”


The 1993 rules were adopted because both parties “believed strongly in protecting the institution and preserving decorum,” Risser wrote then.


But until it is proven that those 1993 rules can work in the current government-by-recall era, the Senate will stay up on blocks.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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