GOP's 2013 agenda for WI: mining, school voucher, tax cuts, sandhill crane hunt
Meet the new Legislature, same as the old Legislature.
Republicans rolled back into control of the state Capitol in Tuesday's elections, reclaiming the majority in the Senate and defending their advantage in the Assembly. With Republican Scott Walker in the governor's office, the GOP can push through just about any proposal it chooses when the next legislative session begins in January.
Republicans controlled both houses and the governor's office for most of the last session, which quickly devolved into one of the ugliest periods in state history. Walker used the GOP majorities to push through his signature plan erasing public workers' union bargaining ability, sparking massive protests, Senate Democrats to flee the state in a futile attempt to block a vote and two rounds of recall elections.
Democrats seized the Senate majority in the last round of recalls in June. They couldn't do anything with it, though, because lawmakers had already finished their work for the session and left Madison to campaign. Now the Democrats are back on the sidelines.
Whether the next two-year session turns as nasty remains to be seen. Republicans passed all of their hot-button issues last session, including Walker's union changes, mandating photo ID at the polls and legalizing concealed weapons.
"I do hope there's some resemblance of the way we used to function in the building," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told his caucus on Thursday. "I'm kind of looking at this as a fresh start."
Republicans have been vague about their to-do list. Their general themes, from relaxing mining standards to revisiting photo identification requirements for voters to satisfy court challenges that left the law in limbo, could stir things up again.
"Last time they viewed us as more a part of the furniture than actual representatives," said Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. "My hope would be they don't go after these kinds of projects, things that come out of the Republican playbook."
The GOP's first priority will be crafting the next state budget, which will lay out spending for the next two years and likely serve as Walker's last major initiative before he begins his 2014 re-election bid.
Walker hinted to Senate Republicans on Thursday he may include measures in the budget that would link education funding to student performance and areas where employers want to see more skilled workers, but he hasn't said what else he might include in the package.
Whatever his plans, it looks like he'll have more to work with than in his first budget when he had to solve a $3.6 billion deficit. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the state will go into the new budget $261 million in the black.
Once they get clear of the budget, Republicans likely will make another attempt to rework mining laws.
They developed a bill last session that scaled back environmental standards for mining companies in hopes of persuading a Florida-based company to open a giant iron mine near Lake Superior. The bill left environmentalists outraged. It died after Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican senator from Richland Center, refused to support it, leaving the GOP one vote shy of passing it out of the Senate.
"We've got to have a mining bill," said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee and a front-runner for the Assembly speaker's post. "We have to put together something that protects the environment but actually brings the jobs here."
Vos said Republicans also might tweak the voter ID law. Two Madison judges have struck the law down as unconstitutional, putting the mandate on hold. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has appealed both rulings but it's unclear when a final disposition may emerge.
"We have to see what the courts are going to do on voter ID. If changes have to be made, we'll do it," Vos said.
Other items on the GOP's 2013-14 agenda could include expanding the school voucher program, which provides subsidies for parents who send their children to private schools, providing more investment capital for startup companies, across-the-board income tax cuts, more work to lighten the regulatory burden for businesses and job-creation legislation.
And Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, plans to reintroduce a bill establishing a sandhill crane hunt, promising to ignite a bitter debate in a state that prides itself on hunting tradition and serves as home to the International Crane Foundation.
Democrats, still stinging from Walker's public union changes, fear Republicans might try to outlaw private sector unions. Walker has said he doesn't want to go that far, calling private unions an important partner in creating jobs, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Vos said it won't happen.
"My hope is this session we'll see Democrats embracing our open hands and saying let's work together instead of shaking a fist at us," Vos said.
But Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat vying with Larson to become Senate minority leader, said Republicans need to treat his party with respect.
"I just hope the Republican majority realizes they're not the only ones who live in Wisconsin," Erpenbach said.