It wasn’t a surprise that tempers flared after legislative leaders from both parties came together for a panel discussion in Madison last week.
After all, they were wading into controversial issues that often divide Republicans and Democrats — including how to spend the state’s surplus, accountability for voucher schools, and which proposals to prioritize at the end of the legislative session.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, directed his anger at his fellow Republican panelist, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
“It’s not appropriate and it’s not the way we operate in the Legislature,” Fitzgerald told reporters when asked about Vos’ plans to aggressively advance Gov. Scott Walker’s tax cut proposal while senators were still working to reach an agreement on it.
Vos fired back, repeatedly — in a meeting with the State Journal editorial board, talking to reporters Tuesday and in an interview Wednesday, when he said Fitzgerald has not responded to his requests for weekly meetings.
Fitzgerald, however, noted that they both just met with the governor last week. And on Wednesday, Fitzgerald sent a letter to rank-and-file Assembly members from both parties asking them to contact his office directly about any bills that have passed the Assembly but not the Senate to talk about legislative priorities.
“We’re just in different spots. I don’t hold him in some negative light because he can’t get stuff done,” Vos said Tuesday. “I hope he doesn’t hold me in some negative light because our members want to get stuff accomplished.”
There’s so much tension between Vos and Fitzgerald that longtime observers say that, were they charged now with passing Walker’s controversial 2011 measure to all but end collective bargaining for public workers, known as Act 10, they wouldn’t be able to get it done. Fitzgerald helped lead that effort with his brother Jeff, who was Assembly speaker at the time.
Numerous lobbyists, Capitol staffers, and lawmakers from both parties — all of whom asked that their names not be used to avoid angering Republican leaders — said those in and around the statehouse are aware of the push-and-pull between the two lawmakers. They said frustration is growing because a number of bills have been caught up in the tussle and may not pass this session as a result.
“I don’t know what kind of personal problems there are,” said Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette Law School Poll. “But we see this difficulty in coordination between the houses, both in the state and nationally.”
And he said that even when Jeff Fitzgerald led the Assembly, the two caucuses couldn’t always agree.
But differences between Vos and Scott Fitzgerald, and by extension the Assembly and Senate, have erupted over a number of issues, including:
• Campaign finance laws: Months ago, the Assembly passed a bill that would double the amounts donors could give candidates for governor and other state offices, including the Legislature, among other changes. It stalled in the Senate.
• Voter ID: After a federal lawsuit was filed challenging a measure that would require voters to show photo ID to cast ballots at the polls, the Assembly rewrote and passed a new version in November. It has stalled in the Senate. Fitzgerald said some members wanted to wait for a court decision, while others wanted to move forward with the bill. He said the caucus is considering it.
• Abortion: A pair of bills that would prohibit an abortion because of the gender of the fetus, and another that would bar procedures from being covered by public-employee health care plans, passed the Assembly. Then Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, warned of “all out hell” over the bills, and late last year Fitzgerald decided against bringing them to the floor, saying he wanted to end the year on a “noncontroversial note.”
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• Higher speed limit: The Assembly passed a bill in October raising the maximum speed limit in the state from 65 to 70 miles per hour. It stalled in the Senate.
• Fox Valley Regional Transit Authority: The Senate on Tuesday voted to allow voters to create a regional transit authority with taxing power in the Fox Valley. Vos said it has zero chance of passing in the Assembly.
• The two chambers are at odds over a school accountability bill, and its prospects are bleak.
Despite the disagreements, Fitzgerald said the Senate still plans to vote on a number of Assembly proposals.
“We are planning on floor days in February, March, and April to take up additional Assembly initiatives that still have not been acted on,” Fitzgerald said in an email. “We are confident that by the close of the legislative session in April, most of the major initiatives that have received support in both houses will have been sent to the Governor’s desk, and Republican legislators will have a strong message to take back to their respective districts.”
But the Assembly will not be in session anymore come April, Vos has said.
“The Legislature is a crazy place, isn’t it?” Vos said Wednesday, when asked about his relationship with Fitzgerald. “The Assembly is passing a lot of our priorities. I’ve been reaching out to Fitz to see if he’s interested in a weekly meeting. He’s not necessarily interested.”
He added that he and Fitzgerald simply have different leadership styles, and different caucuses.
“Neither style is right or wrong. One is a little faster, one is a little slower. But we’ve got to figure out a way to work together, and that’s why I’m offering every opportunity that if he wants to sit down and talk about stuff on any topic, I’m happy to meet. I’ll come to his office,” Vos said. “In the end, we’re both Republicans. It’s all going to work out.”
“It is what it is,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “We’ve got a real tight majority in the Senate, and with him having a 10-seat majority, it’s much easier to develop compromise over there. It’s really that simple.”
Fitzgerald’s letter, which arrived in Assembly offices Wednesday, noted that the session is scheduled to conclude in April and encouraged representatives to contact him directly.
“If you are the author of a bill(s) that has been passed in the Assembly but has not been acted on by the Senate, please contact my office as soon as possible to discuss your legislative priorities,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We have only a few days left to ensure that quality legislation is concurred in and sent to the Governor’s desk for his signature, and I am happy to work with each and every one of you to ensure nothing falls through the cracks due to the legislative calendar expiring.”
Fitzgerald’s letter made no mention of Vos.
— State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour
contributed to this report.