MADISON, Wis. - Pandemic response measures and changing election procedures will take center stage when the Wisconsin Legislature opens its 2021-22 session on Monday, eclipsing even state budget deliberations that typically consume the first six months of every session.
The Legislature this year will also redraw political boundaries as part of the redistricting process that happens every decade, one of the most partisan and consequential acts lawmakers will undertake.
The Legislature returns in January with Republicans in the majority and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers at midterm. Evers and Republicans found little to agree on in his first two years and they've struggled to find common ground on the pandemic response, with the Legislature refusing to meet since it last passed a COVID-19 response in April.
But the political dynamics have shifted since then. Robin Vos remains Assembly speaker, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has moved on after winning a congressional seat. Devin LeMahieu takes Fitzgerald's place and will deal with a more conservative caucus than Fitzgerald had.
"I always say this is usually the most optimistic time," said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz. "Every session is a chance to hit restart. I think these guys have become a little too obsessed with power and winning over other things. Sometimes the best politics is doing the right thing and actually governing."
Sen. Janet Bewley, who is entering her first session as the Senate Democratic leader, said she was concerned about Republicans' willingness to work with Democrats.
"I don’t see a lot of indication of a true willingness to work together and compromise," she said. "But, I believe we must start from there."
Evers has been meeting with LeMahieu and Vos more frequently in recent weeks as they try to reach agreement on a package of bills to address the pandemic.
Evers was first out of the gate with a roughly half-billion dollar package of ideas. Assembly Republicans countered with 50 proposals, many of which Democrats and Evers oppose. Senate Republicans have said they would only spend $100 million from Medicaid surplus funds, but didn't specify on what. Republicans also are looking to limit liability for employers, schools and others. That idea has met resistance from Democrats.
Evers put together a list of initiatives he feels both sides support the week before Christmas and asked the GOP to vote on it. But the package included extending immediate eligibility for unemployment benefits, a non-starter for Republicans. Vos and LeMahieu said the proposal amounted to Evers walking away from negotiations.
On elections, LeMahieu wants to pass a bill allowing for absentee ballots to be counted before Election Day. Democrats support that, but it may run into problems with more conservative Republicans. Vos declined an interview request.
Republicans are also repeating concerns President Donald Trump raised in his failed lawsuits challenging the election results. They are likely to push for changes in voters identifying as indefinitely confined, which allows a voter to cast a ballot absentee without showing photo identification, and to prevent clerks from filling in missing information on absentee ballot envelopes.
Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a year-end interview he would kill anything that makes voting more difficult. Republicans lack the two-thirds majorities in both houses they would need to override any gubernatorial veto.
Legislators will have to find time and energy to pass the state's next two-year budget as well. Evers will release his spending plan in mid-February. He will have to contend with a projected $373 million shortfall worsened by the pandemic, a Republican-controlled Legislature unwilling to raise taxes, and increased demands for funding for the University of Wisconsin System, K-12 schools, roads and Medicaid. The governor said in a year-end interview with The Associated Press that he likely will include criminal justice reforms in the spending plan after a year of protests over police racism and brutality.
The Legislature's budget committee will take months crafting its own spending plan, which it will pass over the summer.
And there's redistricting, which promises to be a knockdown, drag-out partisan fight that will probably end in a courtroom. Republicans redrew legislative boundaries in 2011 to ensure control of the Legislature for the next decade. They'll almost certainly seek to do the same again. Evers told AP that he wants to see competitive districts and if he doesn't he'll veto the plan. That would prompt the GOP to go around Evers and demand a judge to approve their maps.