In his second term leading Assembly Democrats, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said state elected officials will enter 2019 under a "dark cloud" after a Republican-led extraordinary session stripped away some powers from the incoming Democratic administration.
Hintz also said he's still looking for opportunities for bipartisan agreements. In an interview, Hintz shared some thoughts on the lame-duck session and his goals for the coming session. The interview has been edited for length.
How are you feeling about the state of things in the Capitol after this extraordinary session and before the start of a new year?
I’m disappointed. I also think things are pretty bad. It’s hard to imagine things starting off any more toxic than they appear to be after the actions taken by the speaker and by the Senate right after an election where people voted for Gov.-elect Evers precisely to do a lot of the things that he’s no longer able to do because of what took place in a 72-hour period ramming through unprecedented changes to our state. Every session provides new opportunity, but I do think the questions facing Gov.-elect Evers and the Legislature unfortunately have a dark cloud above them as they head into things. Real leadership means stepping up, and that’s what I plan on doing. That’s what Assembly Democrats plan on doing. We’re still going to look for those opportunities to get our priorities through, which are really the priorities of the people of Wisconsin.
What role will Assembly Democrats play in a divided government with Republican majorities in the Legislature and a Democratic governor?
Assembly Democrats ran on funding public schools, expanding health care access, protecting pre-existing conditions, investing in infrastructure, stopping this race to the bottom. Redistricting reform. We very much look forward to supporting a budget proposal from Gov.-elect Evers which we think will match the priorities of the public that we’ve heard throughout the state in this last election. We know that we have a role to play in promoting those priorities and making sure voters know we have the opportunity to do those things.
I do think one of the casualties of this lame-duck session is, everyone has a choice right now: We have divided government, and acknowledging at the end of the day there's going to be some level of compromise required, that leadership recognizes that compromise is essential. That’s a choice, and so is gridlock. Before the lame-duck session, I was preparing folks, saying, we can govern, we can address some of the issues facing the public, and the end product might alienate the far left and the far right — but we should be willing to step up and support compromises that live within what’s acceptable to us. And now it looks like things might be heading more toward more gridlock.
It seems like in the years since the fights over Act 10, there's been a lot of time and effort put toward getting back to a place where lawmakers aren't so divided. How does this extraordinary session factor into that?
Honestly, I think in some ways it’s worse than Act 10. Act 10 was a policy that they could do, but they shouldn’t do. What we saw take place with the lame-duck session was the undermining of the will of the voters in a democratically elected government. Unprecedented. It’s never happened before, where they’ve used those powers to undermine a newly elected governor before they’ve even started. It really represents, even for these guys, a new low, reflecting a new brand of politics.
It’s sort of a scorched earth, power above the people precedent. Nothing that’s happened in these lame-duck sessions benefits the people of the state. You are talking about changing the rules, undermining the foundations of democracy.
It’s true things were pretty bad after Act 10 between members, but this is so offensive, not just to members, but to the public. The amount of disrespect this shows for democracy and this institution, we’ve never seen this before. I think this will be viewed as a dark period and I think we will start the session with a dark cloud.
How do you respond when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, says the lame-duck bills were designed to ensure the branches are coequal, that the Legislature has an appropriate balance of power?
I think it’s embarrassing. The Senate Majority Leader already said it’s about taking power away from the future governor because they don’t trust him. At least Sen. Fitzgerald is being honest. You can say it as many times as you want and try to convince your own members, but that doesn’t make it true. The reality is many of the things that Gov.-elect Evers campaigned on, he will not be able to do because of things that were done in the lame-duck session. I think the courts will hopefully address this, but that’s going to be time, that’s going to be taxpayer money, that’s going to represent uncertainty.
This was the most cynical power grab, but unfortunately if you look back at what the largest accomplishments of the Republican majority have been in the last eight years, they’ve all been geared toward partisan power consolidation. Act 10, voter suppression efforts, allowing political coordination and unlimited corporate influence and now this. It’s a new brand of politics that again is focused entirely on partisan power, and I’m not sure they can even see what our governor is elected to do — and that’s to try to address the challenges facing our state and provide people opportunity.
You've spent time on the Joint Finance Committee. How do you see the budget process playing out this year?
If people at the beginning acknowledge where things might end, I think there’s an opportunity to get things done. I expect Gov.-elect Evers' budget to come out a little later than normal, as have new governors' in the past. I expect that budget to reflect what Gov.-elect Evers ran on, priorities I mentioned earlier. We’ve heard rumblings, and I wouldn't be surprised, that the Republican-dominated finance committee could take up the base budget or introduce their own budget and go from there. It raises questions about how we’re able to move things forward. I would hope they’d look at a lot of the things that were included in Gov.-elect Evers' budget, which should be based on requests made by state agencies. I think there’s probably more overlap in some of these areas. We should start with the things that we agree on, and as the process moves forward, figure out where the real differences are and how we can proceed forward.
There’s no reason why we shouldn’t address transportation funding in this legislative session, there’s no reason why health care access should be a partisan issue. I think there are opportunities there.
You mentioned the choice between gridlock and compromise. What are some issues you think could lend themselves to compromise?
The natural issues of trying to continue to address the opioid epidemic, I think there are always challenges before us, I’m hopeful we can get agreement on.
On the bigger items, if this Legislature can’t address transportation — we’re going to see, was Gov. Walker the obstacle to addressing our transportation funding problem or is it really the fact that legislative Republicans are just as incompetent and incapable? I know Superintendent Evers is ready to go.
I’m not giving up on the Medicaid expansion. If Mike Pence can get it done in Indiana, if Republicans in Iowa, Republicans in Michigan can do this, I think there are ways, and I think there are ways to compromise. If Democrats want to expand access, Rep. Vos has expressed a concern about the low reimbursement rates that I’m also concerned about. With hundreds of millions in federal money we should be able to do both. There’s ways I think that we could be creative to make a Wisconsin-based solution that might address some of the Republican concerns and principles. I understand that Gov. Walker was never going to do it. That obstacle is now out of the way and it’s a new opportunity for the Legislature to do what’s right.
What are you most looking forward to about having a Democrat in the governor's office?
My minimal goal is, we won’t take any steps backwards. I’m really excited for Tony Evers. Who he is is refreshing in an era of cynical power politics. I think he’s an authentic figure whose goals really are service to the state of Wisconsin. It’s his brand. I think that represents a new opportunity. I think you’re going to see it in his appointments, in his agencies, and we want to do everything we can do support him, restoring that people-first perspective and approach to state government in Wisconsin.