State leaders reflect on the year in divided state government
MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin is completing its first year of divided state government in more than a decade.
2019 was filled with sharp partisan divisions between the democratic governor’s office and the republican-controlled legislature. For Governor Tony Evers, the relationship was off to a turbulent start before he even took office.
“Frankly how we started out with the lame duck session,” Evers told CBS 58 in an interview at the State Capitol. “Clearly that was aimed at the attorney general and me. Have we moved on since then? Yes. But I still think there are things that caused us to have strained relationships right from the beginning when we didn’t have to have that.”
Republicans also claim friction between the two sides.
“It’s been kind of a rocky road,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R – Juneau) during a press conference in mid-December.
The GOP attributes the frayed relationship to a lack of communication.
“[I] still have only met with the governor three times this year and most of that was early on,” Fitzgerald told reporters.
Three major areas of conflict this year included the state budget, the State Senate’s rejection of Brad Pfaff as the governor’s pick for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as well as a stalemate on taking action on gun safety proposals.
Evers pushed forward an ambitious state budget that republicans called a, “liberal, tax and spend wish-list.” The Joint Finance Committee, controlled by republicans, scrapped and reduced much of what the governor proposed.
Still, Evers and democrats called it a victory and saw it as pushing the needle in the direction of where they wanted to see taxpayer dollars being spent.
“I view it as a successful budget,” Evers said. “But it was more equally important that it was a down payment on the future.”
On the flip side, republicans viewed the end result as a win for them because they say a liberal governor signed a conservative budget.
“I think we did a good job,” Fizgerald said. “We were able to bring everyone together at the end to get the support needed to pass the document.”
In November, the confirmation vote for Brad Pfaff as the head of DATCP ended in a showdown in the Senate. Pfaff had run into conflict with Senate republicans over funds for farmer suicide prevention and members of the GOP lost confidence in the governor’s secretary-designee. In a rare move, Evers sat in on the debate in the Senate. Pfaff was rejected, the first time such an even happened in at least 30 years, when records of those votes had been kept.
That led to Evers reacting with strong words, telling reporters after the vote, “"To think that [secretary designees] are going to have to keep their mouth shut for the next, who knows — four years — in order to get approved by this Senate, this is just absolute bulls--t."
That same week, the Assembly and Senate were to hold a Special Session on gun safety proposals called by Gov. Evers. The governor and democrats promoted two bills – one on universal background checks on most firearm sales and another for extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag laws. Both ideas had at least 80 percent support according to data from the Marquette University Law School Poll.
But republican leadership, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R – Rochester) refused to take up the bills for vote or even a debate. Both Vos and Fitzgerald gaveled in and gaveled out the Special Sessions immediately, both lasting just seconds.
“When [Gov. Evers] issued his call for what I would say was a partisan special session on gun control, that he knew we were never going to accept, that was really disappointing,” Vos told CBS 58.
Going into 2020, both sides are hoping to cool the temperature in the State Capitol.
“I hope that we can both agree on things that bring us together,” Vos said. “Find common ground to show the people of Wisconsin that things can happen.”
“We’ll continue to fight the good fight,” Evers said. “But to be honest with you part of my DNA is to reach common ground and I’ll continue to do that.”
Despite the partisan back and forth, there were several laws passed in 2019 on a bipartisan basis, especially in the areas of health care and criminal justice. Both sides hope to continue making progress on areas of common ground in 2020.