What could have been a bipartisan win in Wisconsin’s politically fractured Capitol has turned into a dispute that is emblematic of Democrats’ and Republicans’ inability to work together in a new era of divided government.
As so many disagreements do, this one started with the introduction of a bill. But it wasn’t the bill itself that was controversial, it was what happened next.
State Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, announced on Jan. 22 their plans to introduce a bill that would remove the phrases “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from state administrative code, replacing them with “intellectual disability” and similar phrases. The move follows a 2012 law — passed with bipartisan support and signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker — making the same changes to language in state statutes.
Jagler, whose daughter has Down syndrome, is especially aware of how hurtful the “R-word” can be, and how meaningful it is to update the state’s administrative rules with words that don’t evoke a pejorative taunt.
As wide as the gulf between the two parties may be, there’s no question they agree on this one.
When the bill was officially introduced on Feb. 8, it was cosponsored by 39 Republicans and 13 Democrats, including the Democratic leaders of both chambers. A public hearing was scheduled for March 13.
On March 12, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order accomplishing almost exactly what Jagler’s and Fitzgerald’s bill aimed to do.
Evers said the issue was so pressing that he preferred to address it through an order rather than waiting for a bill to pass. He also said he would “happily” sign the Republican bill if it reached his desk.
“We want to cover all the bases,” Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff told me in an emailed statement.
Because the change relates to administrative rules, Baldauff argued, it made sense for Evers to take the lead. And because the bill hadn’t been introduced in previous sessions, she said, Evers’ staff “didn’t know if or when it could reach the governor.”
The bill’s authors felt differently.
“Of all the bills that are being introduced and eventually signed, this was going to be one of the first. We all could have had a nice, easy win here, including the families that this affects,” Jagler told me. “He says he will sign it; I sure hope so. But this was made much more difficult than it needed to be, and it’s very sad politics at the start of what everyone is talking about — that we need to work together.”
After reviewing emails sent by the governor’s staff obtained through an open records request filed by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, Jagler was left with little doubt that Evers’ team had made a concerted effort to issue the order before his bill got a vote. Republican lawmakers shared those emails with members of the media.
After receiving a memo seeking co-sponsors for the bill, two members of Evers’ staff sent emails to other staffers asking if the bill’s intent could be achieved through an executive order instead of with legislation. A Jan. 25 email from state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, encouraged Evers’ staff to send out a letter announcing the governor’s plans to issue the order, saying no legislation would be necessary.
No letter was sent, and Jagler said no one from the governor’s office ever contacted him.
On Feb. 8, responding to a staff member’s request for an update on the executive order, an Evers staffer wrote: “I think we were hoping to wait but didn’t want to get jacked by GOP bill…or could do in conjunction with.”
If anyone hijacked the initiative, Jagler argued, it was the governor. And despite assurances to the contrary by the governor’s team, I can see why Jagler feels that way.
“It’s hard for me to believe that the governor decided to jump in with an executive order while the Legislature was quickly moving a nearly identical bill through both the Senate and Assembly,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “It looks like highly partisan staff in the East Wing are running the show and dragging the governor into unnecessary fights with the Legislature.”
Baldauff said it’s Republicans who are turning this into a fight, and it’s sad they’re doing that instead of trying to work together.
“Republicans did not reach out to the agencies impacted by this legislation (or to our office) prior to circulating their bill,” Baldauff said in an email. “What happened here is a great example of why it would have been helpful for Republicans to reach out to our office and to agencies first, so we could have developed a more expansive and collaborative solution from the start.”
Jagler dismissed that criticism, arguing it was the state Department of Health Services that alerted him late last year that the offensive phrases were still being used in administrative code. It was a DHS employee who recommended the fix be done through legislation, Jagler said, because it’s harder to undo.
Both approaches have their merits. Evers’ executive order covers slightly more ground than the Republican bill, for instance. The bill, however, would be more difficult to reverse if, say, a governor decided to go back to using the offensive language.
“The governor doesn't want to get into a back-and-forth with Republicans on this. Our shared goal of affirming the dignity of all Wisconsinites in an inclusive and respectful way is much more important than who gets credit for taking action,” Baldauff said.
This dispute will soon be eclipsed by a months-long back-and-forth as lawmakers move forward in crafting a 2019-21 state budget, for which compromise between the two parties feels like a faraway dream.
Democrats will point out that Republicans started the relationship on the wrong foot by passing laws limiting the powers of the incoming Democratic administration in an extraordinary session late last year, by declaring a mistrust of Evers before he was sworn in and by pledging to write their own budget instead of adopting Evers’ proposal. That’s fair, and perhaps a certain amount of retribution is justified.
But of all the things to allow to be bogged down by political bickering, this bill? Seems like the wrong call.
If the Democratic administration and the Republican Legislature can’t even agree on how to implement a simple policy change they both support, it doesn’t leave voters with a lot of hope that they can find a way to solve problems where cooperation and compromise will be required. I hope that changes.
Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @jessieopie.