Rule Changes

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (left), Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Rep. Tyler August unveil proposed Assembly rule changes on Tuesday. 

Republican leaders in the state Assembly say they're planning to change their chamber's rules to better accommodate a Democratic lawmaker who's paralyzed from the chest down. 

The updated rules would allow certain lawmakers, including Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, to call in to meetings, a practice that's currently prohibited in the Assembly. They would also seek to limit the amount of time lawmakers are on the floor during session dates, another ask from Anderson.  

The move comes after a heated back-and-forth over the summer, during which 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, instead offering to have a videographer present for certain public hearings. 

Vos said Tuesday the proposed changes were put together after he and other GOP leaders "looked at the situation and tried to take politics out of it."

"(We) just took a step back and all figured out the best way that Rep. Anderson could represent his district, but also do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the integrity of what we think the Legislature should be. And that’s a body where citizens have a right to come and see eye-to-eye with their legislator," he told reporters. 

But Democrats argue the newest tweaks should've been made in consultation with Anderson and they slammed the rule proposal for including other changes to strengthen GOP power in the chamber, such as one that would let the chamber vote multiple times to override a veto. 

"It's a partisan wish list of things they want to happen on the floor, and it takes the democratic process out of it," said Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, of the proposed rule changes. "If they would have done a clean resolution to address these issues, we wouldn't be having this problem today."

The announcement could have been prompted by Anderson's threat of a lawsuit, he told reporters Tuesday. Anderson previously retained an attorney from Disability Rights Wisconsin, which sent Vos a letter in mid-September reiterating accommodations requests he previously made. The letter set an Oct. 1 deadline for a response. 

In addition to the ability to consider a veto override multiple times — currently such votes aren't subject to be reconsidered — the proposed rule changes would also tweak the definition of "Assembly chamber" to exclude the majority leader's office, more easily dismiss certain motions to speed along business, alter the practice of withdrawing bills from committee to be considered on the floor and more. 

The rules changes would need to be approved by the Assembly during its floor session on Thursday to go into effect. 

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback slammed the proposal on Twitter, writing: "It’s wholly unsurprising that Vos would pass on the chance to do the right thing for the right reasons and instead turn it into an opportunity for political retribution." 

Still, Republicans defended the changes as an attempt to ensure there are no lengthy or overnight sessions in order to accommodate Anderson's request. 

For example, the rules would require Assembly leadership from both parties to set time limits of debate for each proposal on the calendar, rather than an overall time period to adhere to, as is current practice. 

Additionally, Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, pointed to a change that would alter when the chamber considers resolutions, proposals that originate in a legislative chamber that don't need the governor's approval. Currently, resolutions are taken up before bills, but the change would allow resolutions to be taken up at the end of a floor session, which is how the Senate conducts its business. 

That would help floor session dates finish on time, Steineke said, while prioritizing the relative importance of bills over resolutions and more easily allowing a member with a disability to leave early. 

But Anderson said changing the order would mean he isn't always able to vote on resolutions rather than bills, "and then it removes my constituents' voice from these proceedings." 

Meanwhile 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. 

On the day of a committee meeting or executive session, the lawmaker would need to notify his or her panel's chairperson at least two hours in advance in order to call in. 

Anderson said that process is "better than how we're currently operating" in the Assembly, but he said he had some concerns that the language wouldn't work with his particular needs.  

Steineke and Vos said the proposed changes are largely based off of a letter they received last month Anderson's attorney at Disability Rights Wisconsin. The letter requested Anderson be given the ability to call in to meetings, an end to overnight floor sessions except for emergency purposes and holding all gatherings during "reasonable" hours.

Anderson told reporters he saw the changes from Republicans as an attempt to avoid a lawsuit. 

"I don't think that an ADA lawsuit is necessary when what I'm asking for here is very small, reasonable changes that the ADA does require," he said. "So I hope that we can avoid that. But some of these changes don't meet my particular needs." 

The Assembly is planning to convene at 10 a.m. Thursday for its first fall floor date. The Senate met earlier Tuesday.  

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.