Af­ter Walker took of­fice, bills sped through the Leg­is­la­ture

An analysis by the Wisconsin Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism shows the pro­por­tion of fast-tracked bills shot up to 26 per­cent in the first ses­sion of Walker’s term

Wisconsin Gazette - - Wigwag - By Teodor Te­ofilov

The length of time bills were de­lib­er­ated dropped sig­nif­i­cantly soon af­ter Gov. Scott Walker and Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors took con­trol in 2011, di­min­ish­ing the pub­lic's op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­flu­ence law­mak­ing, records and in­ter­views show.

A Wisconsin Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism analysis of bills en­acted into law over the past two decades shows an over­all de­cline in de­lib­er­a­tion time — with the most dra­matic drop hap­pen­ing just af­ter Walker took of­fice.

In Walker's first two years in of­fice, av­er­age de­lib­er­a­tion time was 119 days, com­pared to a 20-year av­er­age of 164 days. Dur­ing the 2011-12 ses­sion, one out of ev­ery four bills, in­clud­ing some of the Repub­li­cans' most sweep­ing and con­tro­ver­sial leg­is­la­tion, was passed within two months of in­tro­duc­tion.

In com­par­i­son, in the 1997–98 ses­sion un­der Gov. Tommy Thomp­son, it took an av­er­age of 227 days for a bill to be in­tro­duced, aired in pub­lic hear­ings, passed by the As­sem­bly and Se­nate and signed into law. Repub­li­cans con­trolled the gover­nor's of­fice and Se­nate at the be­gin­ning of that ses­sion, adding con­trol of the As­sem­bly in 1998.

By the 2017–18 ses­sion, when Repub­li­cans con­trolled both chambers of the Leg­is­la­ture and the gover­nor's of­fice, the de­lib­er­a­tion time av­er­aged 162 days — close to the 20-year av­er­age, but well be­low the lev­els seen in the pre-Walker years.

Among the bills ap­proved in Walker's first ses­sion was Wisconsin's 2011 re­dis­trict­ing plan, which the U.S. Supreme Court re­cently kicked back down to the court that had over­turned it. Af­ter be­ing crafted in se­cret by Repub­li­cans, it was ap­proved by the Leg­is­la­ture in 29 days.

Act 10, the law that stripped col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights from most pub­lic work­ers in Wisconsin, was ap­proved in 24 days. Walker's goal with that bill, he con­ceded pri­vately, was to “drop the bomb” on or­ga­nized la­bor. Crowds es­ti­mated at up to 100,000 peo­ple showed up at the Capi­tol to protest that 2011 mea­sure. It has been cred­ited with cut­ting the abil­ity of unions to sup­port Demo­cratic can­di­dates in Wisconsin.

The cen­ter used the 48 days from in­tro­duc­tion to en­act­ment for the mas­sive Fox­conn cor­po­rate sub­sidy deal in 2017 as a bench­mark for fast-track­ing. The analysis showed that 11.2 per­cent of leg­is­la­tion was fast-tracked, pass­ing in 48 days or less, over the two past decades. Rou­tine rat­i­fi­ca­tions of al­ready-ne­go­ti­ated la­bor con­tracts were excluded from the analysis.

In the first ses­sion of Walker's first term, the pro­por­tion of fast-tracked bills shot up to 26 per­cent.

Four ex­perts on leg­is­la­tion and Congress said they are un­aware of a sim­i­lar analysis of de­lib­er­a­tion speed on the state or na­tional level, so it is un­clear how the ap­proval times in Wisconsin com­pare to those of other states.

VINEHOUT: FAST BILLS ‘BAD FOR DEMOC­RACY'

Since that first chaotic ses­sion un­der Walker, the Leg­is­la­ture has spent more time de­lib­er­at­ing on leg­is­la­tion, the cen­ter's analysis showed.

But some of the most con­tentious mea­sures in re­cent years con­tinue to be fast­tracked, in­clud­ing the 2017 vote au­tho­riz­ing the $3.2 bil­lion state tax­payer sub­sidy to elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­turer Fox­conn and 2015's so-called Right to Work Law, which bans la­bor unions from col­lect­ing dues from any work­ers who refuse to pay them.

The speed with which bills pass through the Wisconsin Leg­is­la­ture can be an indi­ca­tor of whether the pub­lic's voice in shap­ing pub­lic pol­icy is be­ing heard.

“I think it's a symp­tom of the leg­isla­tive process be­com­ing less par­tic­i­pa­tory,” said Barry Bur­den, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sinMadi­son and di­rec­tor of the Elec­tions Re­search Cen­ter. “We see more ex­am­ples … of bills be­ing sprung very quickly with­out mem­bers know­ing they're com­ing, with­out the pub­lic know­ing, and hear­ings be­ing an­nounced very quickly with­out lots of no­tice.”

State Sen. Kath­leen Vinehout, D-Alma, has been out­spo­ken about bills that move too quickly. She uses a col­or­ful metaphor to il­lus­trate the dan­gers.

“I think of leg­is­la­tion like fish,” said Vinehout, who ran un­suc­cess­fully in the Demo­cratic pri­mary for gover­nor. “It needs to be opened up and set on the ta­ble in the kitchen and have the sun­shine on it, and we need to see if it smells. Leg­is­la­tion that moves too fast and too dark is al­most al­ways leg­is­la­tion that is bad for democ­racy.”

The group GovTrack.us, which tracks the U.S. Congress and aims to help Amer­i­cans par­tic­i­pate in na­tional leg­is­la­tion, was asked whether mea­sur­ing speed of bill ap­proval could shed light on the strength of democ­racy. In a state­ment, the group, which is po­lit­i­cally in­de­pen­dent and self­sup­port­ing through ad­ver­tis­ing and crowd­fund­ing, said “rea­son­able peo­ple could dis­agree” about whether quickly passed bills can be used to as­sess the health of a democ­racy.

BILLS SPEED UP UN­DER GOP CON­TROL

In Wisconsin, the most dra­matic in­crease in the speed of leg­is­la­tion came when the Leg­is­la­ture and gover­nor's of­fice flipped from Demo­cratic to Repub­li­can con­trol in 2011. The data show that the av­er­age time from bill in­tro­duc­tion to the gover­nor's sig­na­ture dropped by 40 days — 25 per­cent — com­pared to the 2009–10 ses­sion un­der Demo­cratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Rick Esen­berg, the founder and cur­rent pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel of the con­ser­va­tive Wisconsin In­sti­tute for Law & Lib­erty, said one rea­son for faster passage of leg­is­la­tion could be the style of the cur­rent leg­isla­tive lead­ers, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and As­sem­bly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

“It cer­tainly is my im­pres­sion that a lot of times, lead­er­ship wants to move re­ally quickly on bills,” Esen­berg said.

West Bend busi­ness­man and thought leader John Tor­i­nus, who voted for Walker for gover­nor three times and contributed to his 2010 cam­paign, has dubbed the strat­egy “gov­ern­ment by sur­prise.”

The cen­ter sent emails to the four top leg­isla­tive lead­ers — Fitzgerald, Vos, As­sem­bly Mi­nor­ity Leader Gor­don Hintz, D-Oshkosh, and Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Jen­nifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, — to present its analysis and ask whether fast-track­ing and shorter de­lib­er­a­tion times are good for democ­racy. Fitzgerald's of­fice did not re­spond to three emails seek­ing com­ment.

“It's be­come stan­dard prac­tice now for Repub­li­cans to meet with their donors and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists be­hind closed doors, write a bill in se­cret, and then pass it in a mat­ter of days with­out any pub­lic in­put,” Shilling said.

The cen­ter, which is in­de­pen­dent, non­par­ti­san and non­profit, an­a­lyzed de­lib­er­a­tion times to mea­sure the op­por­tu­nity the pub­lic has to weigh in on leg­is­la­tion and whether that has changed over time.

Vos, how­ever, crit­i­cized the cen­ter's analysis as a “po­lit­i­cally-mo­ti­vated and su­per­fi­cial (study) that shows a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­ity of the leg­isla­tive process.”

Said Vos: “The Leg­is­la­ture has ap­proved bills in an ef­fi­cient, ef­fec­tive and trans­par­ent man­ner. This flawed study doesn't take into ac­count the types of bills be­ing ap­proved, the per­cent­age of bills that don't be­come law (roughly 75 per­cent are only re­viewed and don't ad­vance), the leg­isla­tive ses­sion cal­en­dar, any na­tional com­par­isons (many leg­is­la­tures only meet for 120 days) or changes in the cham­ber rules over the last 20 years.”

UW-Madi­son po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor David Canon raised some of the same is­sues, say­ing that such an analysis ide­ally would ex­am­ine whether there was uni­fied or di­vided con­trol of gov­ern­ment and the sig­nif­i­cance of the leg­is­la­tion.

Canon said that the speed with which leg­is­la­tion passes is a bet­ter indi­ca­tor of whether there is grid­lock than whether a democ­racy is healthy.

Vos also said the analysis fails to take into ac­count bi­par­ti­san As­sem­bly agree­ments struck in re­cent years that the non­par­ti­san Leg­isla­tive Ref­er­ence Bureau credit with “less chaotic floor days, ne­go­ti­ated time lim­its for de­bate, and in­creased op­por­tu­ni­ties for cit­i­zens to ob­serve and fol­low As­sem­bly pro­ceed­ings.”

How­ever, those agree­ments were put in place be­gin­ning in 2013 — af­ter the sharp uptick in fast-track­ing that oc­curred when Walker first took of­fice.

Vos' Demo­cratic coun­ter­part, Hintz, said these pro­ce­dural changes fo­cus pri­mar­ily on the fi­nal floor de­bate be­fore a bill is passed and would have neg­li­gi­ble ef­fect on the over­all length of de­lib­er­a­tion time.

Hintz added that the cen­ter's analysis af­firms his own ex­pe­ri­ence. “Some of the bills that have been the most con­tro­ver­sial, where the ben­e­fit to the pub­lic is ques­tion­able, have moved the fastest,” Hintz said.

‘MODEL' BILLS HAS­TEN PASSAGE

Ja­cob Stam­pen — an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tional lead­er­ship and pol­icy analysis at UW-Madi­son who has tracked leg­isla­tive vot­ing pat­terns in the state — said one fac­tor is the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Ex­change Coun­cil, which has been tied to at least three dozen bills and bud­get mea­sures in Wisconsin since Walker took of­fice.

ALEC is a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion of state law­mak­ers, most of them con­ser­va­tives, who meet with cor­po­rate in­ter­ests to craft busi­ness-friendly leg­is­la­tion in the form of “model bills” that can be quickly in­tro­duced in nu­mer­ous states.

Stam­pen said when Walker was elected, “They be­haved as if they had a large ma­jor­ity and they could pass any­thing they wanted to,” adding that the va­ri­ety of the fast­tracked leg­is­la­tion was “breath­tak­ing.”

The so-called Right to Work Law, 2015 Wisconsin Act 1, a model fast-tracked bill, was in­tro­duced on Feb. 23, 2015, passed both houses in a spe­cially called ses­sion and was signed into law 14 days later. It ended the abil­ity of unions to re­quire all work­ers cov­ered by union con­tracts to pay dues — deal­ing an­other blow to the power of unions.

Al­though less used in the 2017–18 ses­sion, fast-track­ing con­tin­ues.

The Fox­conn deal, or Wisconsin Act 58, took 48 days from its ini­tial pro­posal in the As­sem­bly to its en­act­ment. The 13-page bill ob­li­gates Wisconsin tax­pay­ers to an es­ti­mated $3.2 bil­lion in state in­cen­tives plus an ex­pe­dited $408 mil­lion up­grade of In­ter­state 94, one of the largest pub­lic sub­si­dies of a pri­vate com­pany ever in the United States. It was in­tro­duced at Walker's re­quest.

Vinehout said the bill, which came with lit­tle no­tice, was “vague” with “a lot of un­knowns.” She voted against it along with the ma­jor­ity of Democrats and a few Repub­li­cans.

Bur­den said par­ties “have less dis­sent — even within their own party.”

“There used to be more fre­quent ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween mem­bers of both par­ties, and so that pro­longed the process of deal­ing with leg­is­la­tion,” he added. “Now there is very lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion across the aisle.”

Re­porters Dee J. Hall and Pawan Naidu contributed to this story, which was pro­duced as part of an in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing class in the Univer­sity of Wisconsin-Madi­son School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion un­der the di­rec­tion of Hall, the Wisconsin Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism’s man­ag­ing edi­tor.

PHOTO: MICHAEL P. KING/ WISCONSIN STATE JOUR­NAL

Wisconsin Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, bangs the gavel over the protests of then-As­sem­bly Mi­nor­ity Leader Peter Barca, right, dur­ing a hastily called con­fer­ence com­mit­tee meet­ing.

PHOTO: COBURN DUKEHART / WCIJ

As­sem­bly Mi­nor­ity Leader Gor­don Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said fast-track­ing was used ex­ten­sively at the be­gin­ning of Scott Walker's ten­ure for bills that helped Repub­li­cans gain a po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage, in­clud­ing re­dis­trict­ing, voter ID and Act 10.

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