As students, we learned about our representative democracy during civics. A key virtue I learned from school was the value of debate. It is through debate that we communicate, stand up for our beliefs, and come together through compromise.
During the recent lame-duck legislative session, we were never afforded the opportunity of debate. Republicans introduced five bills containing 45 separate proposals late Friday afternoon, held a public hearing the next Monday, and we were voting that Tuesday.
Beyond the lack of debate was confusion about who to debate. Against common practice, none of the legislators put their names on the legislation – each bill was introduced by the Joint Committee on Finance. At the public hearing, the bill authors did not bother to testify. The final tally showed that during the public hearing, 337 people spoke against the proposals and nobody spoke in favor of them. On the Senate floor, not a single Republican senator stood up to defend the proposals during the 20 hours we were in session. At one point, we were asked to vote on an amendment that the Republicans never distributed to us.
While the headlines focused on proposals that reduce the incoming governor’s power and limit early voting, other proposals included a bill claiming to protect pre-existing conditions. That proposal would cause health care premiums to skyrocket and it fails to adopt consumer protections such as a prohibition on lifetime and annual limits.
Legislators also managed to shortchange rural roads. One proposal eliminates required compliance with the Department of Transportation’s facilities development manual, which provides guidance on road erosion control, stormwater management, and pavement design - among other things. For certain state highway rehabilitation projects, federal funds would have to make up at least 70 percent of the project funding if federal funds are used at all. This creates an additional burden of meeting federal-state funding requirements, which could lead to projects not getting done.
These proposals are less exciting than the narrative of us versus them, but they matter to western Wisconsin. We were sent to Madison to serve the public, not fight over political power.
What happened in the past few weeks does not reflect what we were taught in school – to debate and stand up for our beliefs. We were denied the opportunity to debate because lawmakers did not stand up and explain what was so great about their proposals, which were passed in the middle of the night and crafted with little opportunity for public and stakeholder input.
In the aftermath of the session, I think of the Wisconsin that we could be. We need to work together to solve issues and serve our communities. But we need trust to do that. Former Republican Governor Scott McCallum said “we seem to be going down a very slippery slope of personal power over public policy,” and unfortunately, I agree. However, I believe that by looking at the past, there is a way forward.
Before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush wrote a letter for his successor, President Bill Clinton. In it, President Bush wrote “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” We need to look at President Bush’s example and return to the norms and expectations that define a good-faith transition of power. In divided government, both sides need to be able to communicate, debate, and be open to compromise. You cannot reach across the aisle if no one is there to reach back.
There is a balance of power and we now have a Democratic governor. We must work together to govern.