In a week of tense political standoffs, each of the state's major political parties scored wins as the GOP-majority Legislature convened and quickly adjourned special sessions without considering Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' gun-control legislation.
But, as expected, Democrats thwarted an attempt by Assembly Republicans to override three of the governor's budget vetoes. While Republicans hold a strong majority in the Assembly, they were several votes shy of the two-thirds votes they needed to override the vetoes.
In the Assembly, speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) convened the special session on the gun legislation and adjourned it quickly after a regular session in which the veto overrides and other bills were considered. In the Senate, Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) stood by himself in the chamber, gaveling the session in and then gaveling it out.
However, Fitzgerald said all Republicans, who hold a 19-14 margin in the Senate, were opposed to Evers' bills - a bill to require universal background checks for all gun purchases and another a red-flag law that would allow law enforcement and family members to petition a court to temporarily seize the guns of someone they consider dangerous.
"In recent months we've seen liberals across the country run on a platform of support for gun confiscation, and Gov. Evers himself has left the door open on backing similar proposals," Fitzgerald said after adjourning the special session. "I've said all along that the Senate would not go along with the governor's plans for this special session."
Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, said that, as he travels across southeastern Wisconsin, voters regularly tell him to protect their Second Amendment rights.
But Evers said Republicans were ignoring 80% of Wisconsin residents and a majority of gun owners, whom he said support his legislative proposals.
"Republicans essentially just told 80% of Wisconsinites and a majority of gun owners, 'go jump in a lake,' because they didn't have the courage to take a vote - much less have a dialogue - on two bills about universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders that we know can save lives," Evers said. "And they did so at their own peril because now Republicans have to go back to their districts and explain to their constituents why they refused to even do their jobs today."
Over in the Assembly, a package of eight bills to help address the issue of suicide in Wisconsin, developed from recommendations of the bipartisan Speaker's Task Force on Suicide Prevention, moved forward to the Senate for consideration. Vos called it an example of what can be accomplished when politics are put aside.
The package of bills included the creation of a statewide suicide prevention director to help coordinate prevention services, grants for peer support groups in schools, new training grants, and the requirement for schools to place the suicide hotline number on student IDs.
"While we know this serious problem may never be solved, it's my hope these bills can make a difference and save a life," Vos said.
But Vos also pointed out that Democrats did not join Republicans in the three override attempts on measures the GOP said would invest even more in mental health services for rural areas and for vulnerable populations. One measure would have funded a Northern Wisconsin Regional Crisis Center; the others would have increased Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health services and funding for qualified treatment training grants.
"Democrats had a chance to correct Gov. Evers's mistake in the state budget," Vos said. "At the end of the day, I'm pleased with the bipartisan work of the task force and that we're moving forward on the eight bills."
Northwoods Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) also weighed in on the override attempts, specifically Evers's decision to remove $15 million that the Legislature put into the budget for the regional crisis center to serve northern Wisconsin.
"Perhaps the most important vote I took today was on the veto override of Gov. Evers's funding cut for the mental health crisis center that would have served northern Wisconsin," Felzkowski said. "Unfortunately, my Democrat colleagues from northern Wisconsin were unable to vote for their districts and for their constituents."
Felzkowski said the votes showed a Democratic bias against rural areas of the state.
"Because of Gov. Evers and the Assembly Democrats, rural Wisconsinites are once again being denied the opportunity to have the mental health services that are not only readily available in Milwaukee and Madison, but are paid for by taxes from all over the state, including the Northwoods," she said.
Besides the controversy over guns and vetoes, another showdown between the GOP and Evers occurred this week when the state Senate refused to confirm Evers's pick for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), Brad Pfaff.
Evers called the firing "B.S.," and said the action left Wisconsin's leading agricultural agency without its top leader in the midst of rising trade tensions on the federal level and a growing dairy crisis.
"Brad Pfaff is an extraordinary person and public servant who has dedicated his life to serving and advocating for our farmers, their families, and our rural communities," Evers said. "Brad once even went as far to say that being the secretary of DATCP was his dream job, and by golly, it showed."
Evers said Pfaff brought relentless passion and joy to his work.
"And that's why Republicans' actions today were nothing short of callous and cruel - Republicans voted to reject a good man who has a good heart and who wakes up every day ready to serve," he said. "It was apparently more important for Republicans to serve up political retribution because Brad had the courage and the audacity to scold them for playing politics with farmers' mental health during this dairy crisis."
Republicans argued that Pfaff had politicized his position by developing what Fitzgerald called "burdensome rules" on farmers - new manure storage regulations - at a time when farmers are already in crisis.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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