Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Divisions are on display as legislators evaluate 2019, while Republicans are accused of shutting out Democrats.

Holiday potlucks are as unique as snowflakes: no two are alike, each one a wild array of appetizers, desserts, entrees, and mysteries—entirely dependent upon the whims and efforts of the invited guests.

Replace the food with political rhetoric, and the potluck known as a legislative breakfast can be equally varied in flavors and temperatures, as seen at a December 20 event featuring half a dozen legislators from western Wisconsin, sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Republicans in attendance labeled the year a success because, as noted by Rep. Rob Summerfield, D-Bloomer, Democratic Governor Tony Evers signed a budget bill written by GOP leaders who control both the Assembly and State Senate.

Democrats described a year of lost opportunity for Wisconsin, one in which Republicans could have embraced the notion of “shared government” provided by Evers’ election last year. Evers had provided a “People’s Budget” proposal, crafted in public workshops held around the state. The governor and legislative Democrats pointed to public support for a variety of issues—expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage for the first time in several years, medical marijuana, gun safety measures, redistricting reform, automatic voter registration, and a rollback of corporate tax breaks—all rejected by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

“Divided government isn’t listed anywhere in the Constitution,” said Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire. Shared government, he said, is what the people want and what Gov. Evers was offering.

Even after the budget debate was over, Democrats cited instances in which Republicans exerted power in unprecedented ways: a first-ever firing of a cabinet secretary, at least one committee chair refusing to even acknowledge proposed Democratic amendments to bills, a special session on gun safety called by Gov. Evers that was gaveled in and out in less than a minute, and a similar snub to the governor calling the Joint Finance Committee to meet and allocate money that had already been approved to assist the homeless prior to winter setting in. 

The widely divergent views of 2019 are not restricted to one portion of the state, and a review of the year-end press releases by many of Wisconsin’s 132 state lawmakers illustrates the ongoing tensions.

“A positive, busy, productive year,” wrote Sen. Howard Marklein, a Republican from Spring Green.

“Bipartisan bills have not been able to move through the legislative process,” reported Rep. Dave Considine, a Democrat from Baraboo.

“I am delighted at the progress we have made thus far,” said Rep. Warren Petryk, a Republican of Eleva.

Rep. Gary Hebl, Democrat from Sun Prairie, took aim earlier at the lack of session days and a likely wrap-up by February because campaigning is “more comfortable compared to legislating.”

Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D- Middleton, said, “Next year we will have another opportunity to tackle the issues that the Republican legislature left unaddressed before they went on vacation this year.”

Back at the holiday breakfast in Eau Claire, the tension became personal as Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, continued to levy personal attacks at Democrats over a dispute surrounding the need for emergency psychiatric beds. Gov. Evers had vetoed a Bernier-authored earmark in the state budget bill that created a facility without following usual oversight standards, and Democrats failed to join Republicans in an override attempt. At the September legislative breakfast, Bernier singled out Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, as being ill informed on the issue, and this time she levied a similar charge against an unnamed “freshman Democrat” for missing a meeting Bernier had organized on the issue.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Jodi Emerson of Eau Claire, confident the Bernier criticism was meant for her, responded firmly, “Just because I didn’t go to your meeting doesn’t mean I don’t do my research.”