MADISON – Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin can’t agree on much — including why they can’t agree.
Democrats say Republicans spoiled chances for bipartisanship with a lame-duck session that peeled power away from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul even before they were seated.
Republicans say Evers packed so much liberal policy into the state budget he introduced in February that he left no room for compromise.
The roots of the problem date to the election, when Evers edged out two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The next day, Evers received dozens of congratulatory phone calls — including one from Walker — but he didn’t hear from the Republican leaders of the Legislature, who kept firm grips on the state Senate and Assembly.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester were busy working on the legislation to clip the new governor’s wings before he took office.
Here is what you need to know about the on-going Wisconsin Lame-Duck Lawsuit
Lou Saldivar, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Now cemented in place as adversaries, the three most powerful people in Wisconsin’s divided government must decide how much money to spend on vital services like schools and transportation.
But they’re barely talking.
Barring a breakthrough in negotiations, the state is on a path to adopt a state budget that won’t include anything new, including the education and health-care proposals that propelled Evers to victory in November.
Vos said the lack of communication is Evers’ fault: the governor won’t sit down with him on a regular basis like Walker did with the two legislative leaders.
“We’ve been consistently trying to figure out a way to get that done but I’m also not going to camp out on his doorstep,” Vos said. “He was on public radio the other day — I thought about calling in.”
But emails from the governor’s office show Evers’ staff this month tried to set up a meeting between the governor and Vos and Fitzgerald. The GOP leaders didn’t immediately take advantage of that opportunity, but have now arranged to meet on Wednesday.
In any case, Evers isn’t concerned about the dynamic.
‘Do we hang out every day? No’
“I think it’s fine,” he said Friday. “I mean, do we hang out every day? No.”
Evers said he has met with more than 100 of the state’s 132 lawmakers since he was inaugurated in January. Republicans downplayed those events as meet-and-greet encounters that didn’t involve substantive talks.
“Do we meet on a daily basis? No,” Evers said. “But we also have something we call staff members that work for us that actually can do some interactions on a daily basis if so needed. So I’m not concerned about the communication we have. As we get further down the line in the budget-making, I’m sure we’ll meet more often.”
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Fitzgerald said lawsuits challenging the laws Republican legislators passed to limit Evers’ power are hampering progress.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out who to talk to, how to talk to them, and when to talk to them,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “With the lawsuits and the distractions that have been brought to the process, it’s been difficult to generate any type of relationship with the governor’s office.”
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling discounted that claim, saying the relationship wasn’t damaged by the lawsuits so much as the laws that sparked the litigation.
“I think my Republican colleagues are befuddled and miffed about how the lame-duck session hangover continues to permeate what happens in this building and what actions are taken,” the La Crosse Democrat said in an interview in her Capitol office.
Vos said it’s important to begin talking now so the two sides can develop trust and get to know how each other negotiates.
If they talked regularly, Evers might be able to persuade Republicans to adopt some of his budget plans, Vos said.
“But at the same time, it’s not going to be done through a tweet that is nasty or through some kind of condescending tone from his staffers,” Vos said. “That drives people further apart, not brings them together.”
He added: “If you have a conversation, maybe you’ve got some good points. Maybe there would be 10 percent you could get. The way he’s operating right now he’s going to get a lot of nothing.”
‘No person is king’
Vos took offense at the idea of meeting with Evers’ staff instead of the governor himself, saying he doesn’t believe in an “imperial governorship.”
“No person is king. No person should be off limits,” Vos said. “You know, in constitutional government, we are co-equal branches of government.”
Vos and Fitzgerald routinely met with Walker’s chief of staff, Eric Schutt. Republicans said that was an acceptable way of doing business because they also had regular meetings with Walker and had a strong relationship with Schutt, a former Assembly aide.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said Evers is not interested in political strategy but in addressing public policies.
“The idea that you can lash out against the governor hours after he’s elected and undermine his powers before he’s even sworn in is not exactly sending a sign of ‘I look forward to working with you,'” the Oshkosh Democrat said, adding that the move “eroded all respect and trust” the GOP leaders are looking for.
Hintz said the relationship needs trust but the style of all three might not be compatible.
“Obviously there’s an adjustment period but I think you just have different brands out there,” Hintz said. “Everything for the majority leader and the speaker, if you haven’t noticed, is about power and control and not really as much interest in governing and that is going to be the approach here. I don’t think there’s much in common with Gov. Evers.”
Republicans contended they have been slighted in ways large and small.
Republicans said they tried to find a compromise on legislation to protect insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Moments after they met with the governor on the issue in January, he posted a message on Twitter saying he hoped to find common ground but would not sign the legislation if it did not include provisions that he argued would “fully protect” people with pre-existing conditions.
The Assembly in January passed a version of the legislation that Evers believes falls short. The bill is stalled in the Senate.
Democrats said the debate over the legislation is ridiculous because Republicans have fought efforts by Evers and Kaul to get Wisconsin out of litigation challenging the Affordable Care Act, the federal law known as Obamacare that offers more protections for those with pre-existing conditions than individual states can.
Also in January, Republicans unveiled legislation to scrub state rules of phrases such as “mental retardation” and replace them with terms such as “intellectual disability.”
Soon afterward, Evers issued an executive order to do just that — single-handedly making the change and depriving lawmakers of a chance to take credit for it.
“Is this something that could be done without legislation?” Evers’ legislative director, Stephanie Hilton, wrote in an email to colleagues shortly after Republicans announced their plans.
Republicans said they were blindsided by the move. Democrats said it made sense to act quickly to make Wisconsin more welcoming.
Republicans wrote the legislation to build off of a 2012 law that stripped the terms from state statutes, but not state rules. They plan to approve the bill applying to state rules on Tuesday, despite Evers’ executive order. Evers has said he would sign it.
Republicans have used the same tactic as Evers. In February, they tried to get ahead of him by passing legislation to cut income taxes for middle-class families by 10 percent — something Evers pledged to do on the campaign trail.
Evers’ vetoed the bill because the cut was paid for with a one-time budget surplus instead of reducing a tax break for manufacturers, as Evers had proposed. He included his version of the tax cut in the budget he later gave lawmakers.
Democrats have bristled over Republicans requiring Evers to deliver his budget by the end of February, instead of a few days into March, as Evers wanted.
“From the get-go, I feel like they haven’t given the governor an inch,” Shilling said of Republicans. “I feel like their strategy is to slow-play Gov. Evers.”
Republican rift is healing
While the relationship between Republicans and Evers remains frayed, the one between Vos and Fitzgerald has improved.
Despite belonging to the same party, Vos and Fitzgerald clashed repeatedly during the Walker years, particularly on transportation funding during deliberations over the last state budget.
But since Evers was elected, the two have gotten along much better. Vos said that came from having regular conversations and working through their differences.
“I think both of us sat back and said, ‘OK, we have to hit the reset button in a whole lot of ways,'” Vos said.
Whether they can continue to get along will be tested by budget talks. Senate and Assembly Republicans remain far apart on transportation and that issue or another could create headaches for them this summer, when they are slated to send their version of the budget to Evers.
“I’m happy with the relationship we’ve been able to build with Speaker Vos and the Assembly — we’ll continue to work together and hopefully the governor will decide to engage,” Fitzgerald said.
Hintz said it’s also up to Republicans to be willing to negotiate with a Democratic governor.
“I think we’ll know how the budget process is moving based upon how much the governor’s input is being considered as (the Joint Finance Committee) makes decisions,” he said. “There is a way to do this that I think would benefit the state, and I think they do need to talk with meaningful engagement, but it’s not worth it if it’s not going to be real.”
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