Disabled Lawmaker Access (copy)

Democratic state Rep. Jimmy Anderson (center), who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, weighed in on the proposed rule changes on Tuesday. 

Lawmakers have changed the state Assembly’s rules to let disabled legislators call-in to meetings and take unlimited veto override votes. 

The rule changes, originally included in a single motion, were broken into two separate ones after state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who is paralyzed from the chest down, gave an emotional speech on the floor Thursday. In it, he slammed Republicans for being “small and petty" by "forcing me to vote against my own disability accommodation."

After two hours of debate on the rule, followed by a one-hour break for the chamber to honor first responders, lawmakers returned mid-afternoon and Republicans separated the language into two motions in an effort to encourage Democrats to support the disability accommodations. 

Of the two motions, one included language allowing legislators to call-in to committee meetings and executive sessions; and measures to limit lengthy floor debates. The second featured the veto override language, as well as a measure to tweak the definition of "Assembly chamber" to exclude the majority leader's office. 

Many of the changes drew the ire of Democrats, who argued the language amounted to a "power grab." 

In the end, both motions ultimately passed over complete opposition from Democrats, including Anderson himself. But the second motion was also voted down by GOP Rep. Scott Allen, of Waukesha. 

Anderson, D-Fitchburg, had been seeking the ability to call in to meetings and set limits to the amount of time lawmakers are on the floor for nearly a year. 

In his floor speech earlier in the afternoon, Anderson recounted the car crash that killed his parents and 14-year-old brother and left him paralyzed. 

"I will never walk, I will never use my hands, I will never be able to enjoy my life as I once did,” he said. 

The changes also allow members to take unlimited veto override votes. Previously, those votes — which need the approval of two-thirds of the members present to pass — weren't subject to be reconsidered.  

The proposal came after months of discussion on the topic between the two parties. Over the summer, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, accused Anderson of "political grandstanding" following a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on the issue and declined to let him call into meetings. 

But things changed after Anderson retained an attorney at Disability Rights Wisconsin, who sent a letter to GOP leadership last month reiterating Anderson's requests and demanding a response by Oct. 1. 

In light of the correspondence, Republicans opted to crack open the Assembly rules to make some changes. 

Ahead of the vote, Republicans lamented Democrats' "my way or the highway" approach, with Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke downplaying Democrats' concerns about the language and arguing he'd attempted repeatedly to rope the minority party into conversations and compromise on the issue. 

Steineke said the changes — spurred by the letter leaders received from Anderson's attorney — sought to accommodate Anderson's requests without "completely chang(ing) the culture of the Assembly." 

As for the veto override language, Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said it "doesn't change the power at all." The governor can still issue vetoes and the threshold for an override remains the same. All that's different, he noted, is the number of times the Assembly can vote on an override attempt. 

"For a party that wants to vote on Medicaid expansion 800 times over the last few years, you only want us to bring up a veto override once?" he asked, adding it's "mind-boggling" the language is a sticking point.  

But Democrats argued the changes limited minority debate and built on the actions Republicans took during the December extraordinary session when they passed lame-duck laws in the waning days of GOP Gov. Scott Walker's administration to curb his successor's powers. 

"(Republicans have used Anderson's) request as a last minute opportunity to push through a slew of unrelated power grabs that have nothing to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. 

Gov. Tony Evers' spokeswoman Britt Cudaback also slammed the proceedings in a statement, saying Republicans chose "to exploit a request to make accommodations for a member with disabilities just so they can have more opportunities (to) override and ignore the will of the people."

In addition to the rule change being separated into two motions, the language approved Thursday also included a couple of tweaks to what Republicans originally proposed earlier this week. Namely, it allows a lawmaker who wants to call in to a meeting to give 30 minutes of notice rather than two hours, a change Anderson sought. 

Specifically under the call-in process, a lawmaker with a permanent disability would need to present written documentation to the Legislature's HR office. HR would then have to certify in writing the member has a permanent disability and isn't able to regularly attend committee meetings, a copy of which would be provided to the speaker and minority leader, who would need to sign off on the member's ability to participate in the meetings via telephone.

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.