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Opponents of Republican extraordinary session legislation crowded the Capitol hallway outside the Joint Finance Committee hearing room Monday afternoon. Some chanted, sang and banged on walls as the panel convened to take up the slate of bills.

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, would not say Monday whether his caucus has the votes necessary to pass a controversial set of measures to change early voting and the date of next spring's primary election during an extraordinary legislative session this week.

He also questioned why Democrats are upset at the potential changes to the executive branch. 

"People are outraged. I'm not sure where that's coming from right now," Fitzgerald said at a quickly organized press conference in the state Capitol. He said he was not willing to forecast if the early voting and election date proposals could gain majority approval in the Senate.

"Depending on what it would look like and how you could move those dates ... depends on how you approach it. I wouldn't say no because I think there are a number of individual senators that feel strong about trying to move that presidential primary and really don't care much about the national implications of a presidential primary in the state," he said.

Fitzgerald, speaking ahead of a heated Joint Finance Committee hearing, said members of his caucus are first concerned with finding a version of legislation that would protect access to health insurance for citizens with preexisting medical conditions.

"It's a work in progress," Fitzgerald said, noting that Republicans have included Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, in the discussions of that plan.

"The amount of passion that was in and around that issue. Most of my members brought it up right away....we're anticipating it will be a significant vote for preexisting conditions when it's on the floor tomorrow," he said. 

The Legislature is considering several proposals including two that would change the election date for the state's spring primary, from April to March, separating it from the non-partisan election of Supreme Court justices. Another proposal would curtail early voting in the state and several others would strip key authority from the governor and the attorney general. 

Repeating remarks made last week, Fitzgerald called the proposals "inside baseball." He noted that Gov-elect Tony Evers' comments over the weekend, where he vowed to fight back against many of the changes, had energized his members. 

"He's been over the top when he says this has been 'outrageous.' I don't think it's outrageous at all. When you go through the bills one by one you see they fall into different categories. Some are certainly in response to one party control," Fitzgerald said, noting that there were some loose ends from outstanding policy changes earlier in the session that were a part of the bills.  

"All we're doing is codifying specifically rule making in the statutes, which I think makes sense," he said. "Beyond that there is a whole other group of bills right now we're considering that were already passed by this legislature.

"I'm concerned. I think Gov-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin and the idea that there's going to be a complete shift in Wisconsin, I don't have any problem highlighting that right now. I want people to understand that."

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Fitzgerald was joined by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills,  and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.

"The number one priority is to make sure we balance the powers between the two co-equal branches of government," Vos said. "We believe in the end this will allow for a better exchange and more cooperation."

Vos said he had intended to bring out similar changes to the executive branch in January and has been public in the past about wanting to strengthen the legislative branch. Power often naturally flows to the executive branch in state government, which should be re-balanced, he said.  

Vos said the changes must now be done now to "avoid devolving into partisan rancor."  

Partisan rancor nonetheless took hold in the halls of the Capitol Monday. Police locked the doors of the Joint Finance Committee hearing room and members of the public shouted and banged on the walls for the first few hours of the meeting, though it later became quiet. Individuals who interrupted the committee's proceedings were removed by police.

The hearing was to last into Monday night. Members of the public are scheduled to have an opportunity to speak after lawmakers finish their discussion. 

 

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.