Wisconsin gridlock between Democratic governor, lawmakers

MADISON, Wis. — A tumultuous week that put on full display the partisan agendas of Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican Legislature also revealed the limitations both face under divided government that increasingly results in gridlock.

Republicans started and ended an Evers-called special session on guns within seconds, taking no action, and they fired an Evers Cabinet secretary as the scowling governor watched from the floor of the Senate. Democrats rebuffed three attempts to reverse Evers' vetoes, the first override votes in nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the Senate ended its work for the year having passed few bills. The Assembly is coming back for one more day before 2020.

Evers has signed just 20 bills into law during his first year in office — a fraction of what his predecessors have done under divided governments — and has vetoed seven bills in their entirety. If that continues, it will be the highest veto rate of any governor in Wisconsin history, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

In a word: gridlock.

"It disappoints me because I know we're better than this," said Dale Schultz, a Republican who served in the Legislature for 23 years before retiring in 2014. "I've seen us better than this."

Much of the partisan dramatics resulted in very little that will affect the average Wisconsin family. While Republicans exerted their power by firing Evers' agriculture secretary, less than two days later he appointed an interim replacement who will carry through with his administration's goals without missing a beat.

Democrats pushed for a pair of gun control bills, pointing to polls showing broad public support and arguing that the measures would reduce the number of suicides by firearms and increase public safety. Republicans discounted the arguments and took no votes on the bills calling for a universal background check and allowing judges to take away guns from people determined to be a threat.

Tim Cullen, a former Democratic state senator who crossed party lines to serve in the Cabinet of a Republican governor, said the gridlock was "bad for Wisconsin."

"As I see the problem, there are no outer boundaries beyond which partisanship doesn't go any more," Cullen said.

This week of unrest is just a continuation of what had been going on even before Evers took office.

Republicans convened a lame-duck session to weaken his powers weeks before he took the oath. Once in power, the Legislature has looked for every way possible to stymie his agenda. Ousting his agriculture secretary this week so angered Evers that he took the seemingly unprecedented step of watching the debate in person, just a few feet away from lawmakers. The normally mild-mannered Evers, a former teacher and state education chief whose preferred form of entertainment is the card game euchre, lashed out at Republicans in the halls of the Capitol in an angry retort sprinkled with four-letter words.

Democrats tried to score a political win in the defeat of the gun control bills in the special session that wasn't.

Senate Democrats maximized the drama, pausing for a moment of silence to recognize victims of gun violence at the appointed start time of the special session when Republicans were nowhere to be found. Democrats in the Assembly, while denied a chance to debate or vote on the gun bills, still hammered Republicans for dodging the issue. Polls show more than 80% public support for the measures.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said he hoped inaction by Republicans would lead to voters ousting Republicans, as happened in Virginia this week after GOP lawmakers there refused to take up gun control legislation.

To end the week, Evers threatened to re-ignite an evergreen fight over what to call a tree decorated ahead of Christmas in the Capitol rotunda. It was called a "holiday tree" for 25 years but former Republican Gov. Scott Walker called it a Christmas tree the past eight years. Evers on Friday announced he was once again calling it a "holiday tree" and said the theme for decorating it was "celebrating science."

The partisan fighting with few tangible results frustrates people who want and expect the Legislature to address issues that are important to the state, said Schultz, the former Republican lawmaker.

"They have to look themselves in the mirror and ask what responsibility they have for the gridlock and what they can do to make it better," Schultz said. "We have far too many people counting coup and not enough people cherishing friendships and sharing a belief that the future can be better."