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Gov. Tony Evers and Republican state lawmakers sought Monday to explain their faltering efforts to negotiate the next state budget, with Evers first sidestepping — but later appearing to endorse — his spokeswoman’s claim that sexism explains GOP leaders’ refusal to negotiate with the governor’s top staffers.

Evers initially declined Monday, when asked at a news conference, to concur with his spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff’s contention that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald “are clearly uncomfortable or simply unwilling to work with” the governor’s all-female leadership team.

But Evers seemed to double down on that argument in a subsequent statement Monday. It said that only Vos and Fitzgerald can explain “why they won’t work with the women who are leading my office.”

Evers said GOP legislative leaders set a precedent in their negotiations with top staffers for former Gov. Scott Walker, who were men. He said he asked Vos and Fitzgerald to hold budget talks with his chief of staff, Maggie Gau, but they have not.

“They know how to work with my staff and are choosing not to. So, this is clearly a departure from past practice. You connect the dots,” Evers said.

Fitzgerald, meanwhile, said Evers’ initial unwillingness to address Baldauff’s comments bolsters their case for meeting with the governor directly, instead of through subordinates.

“If not even the governor’s spokesperson can be trusted to speak for the governor, how can he expect us to work with anyone from his staff?” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Vos has been particularly emphatic that he expects to hold budget negotiations directly with Evers instead of through subordinates.

The exchange shows the rising tensions between Evers, a Democrat, and Republicans who control the Legislature. Both sides are not making progress on a deal for the next state budget, even as the Legislature this week approaches a critical point in the process.

The Legislature’s budget-crafting Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the state K-12 schools budget Thursday. But GOP lawmakers say there is no agreement with each other, or with Evers, on what the schools budget will include.

The controversy first flared Saturday at the Republican Party of Wisconsin convention, when Fitzgerald accused Evers of failing to reach out to lawmakers.

Baldauff responded that Fitzgerald and Vos “are clearly uncomfortable or simply unwilling to work with a leadership team made up entirely of women.” Evers’ chief of staff and three deputy chiefs of staff — Baldauff, Kara Pennoyer and Barbara Worcester — are all women. Evers was asked about those comments Monday.

Monday’s news conference was held by Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, to publicize their push for automatic voter registration in Wisconsin. It was included in Evers’ budget but removed by GOP lawmakers, and now Crowley and other Democratic lawmakers want to advance it as a standalone measure.

The bill requires the state Elections Commission to “facilitate the registration of all eligible electors of this state.” That would be done in part by directing the commission to reach an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to share information about voters.

Democratic proponents of the measure touted it as pushback against what they said is a Republican effort to restrict voting rights.

“It will streamline the process, making sure that people can vote,” Crowley said.

Wisconsin had about 3.24 million active registered voters as of May 1, according to the Elections Commission. The state Department of Administration estimated Wisconsin’s voting age population in 2018 was about 4.5 million. That number includes at least some people of voting age but not eligible, such as those currently incarcerated for felonies or non-citizens.

Vos said in a statement that “this bill is a solution looking for a problem. It’s easy to register to vote in Wisconsin.”

Vos cited measures the state has adopted to make voting easier. They include online voter registration and Election Day registration — the latter of which Vos previously sought to repeal.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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