Slow pace of legislation lags previous sessions

Split party control of Wisconsin state government appears to have greatly slowed the flow of legislation being enacted into law in the current 2019-20 legislative session and it appears unlikely the pace will pick up anytime soon.

According to the Wheeler Report, neither the state Senate nor the state Assembly are expected to meet in floor session during the month of September. Lawmakers had set aside the period from Sept. 17 to 26 for a floor period when they organized the session schedule back in January. The next scheduled floor period is October 8-10.

Although the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers surprised some observers by finalizing the 2019-21 biennial state budget by early July, productivity on other matters has lagged. The number of bills enacted into law so far in 2019 is only about a third of the number enacted over the comparable period in 2017, when Republicans controlled both the Legislature and the Governor’s office.

To date, just 18 bills, including the state budget, have been signed into law since Evers became governor in January    Over a similar timespan during the previous two sessions, Gov. Scott Walker had signed 57 bills into law in 2017 and had inked 60 bills in 2015.   Evers has vetoed five bills so far, while. Walker vetoed none during the same time period in 2017 and just two in 2015.    

While the overall number of bills being introduced is down slightly this session, it roughly parallels the totals from recent sessions. That points to partisan politics as a key to why fewer bills have been enacted.  Capitol observers note that Republican agenda items that lack support from Democrats are not reaching the governor’s desk as they did in prior sessions or are being vetoed.   They also note that none of Evers’ choices for cabinet secretary positions has been confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate yet, although several of those appointments have received favorable votes in committee. Until those appointees are confirmed, they serve under a cloud of uncertainty as they could be removed by a single vote of the state Senate to reject their nomination.

One area where legislative action might occur is with regard to budget vetoes made by the governor. Legislative Republicans could attempt to override some of Evers’ 78 budget vetoes. However, such an override would require a two-thirds majority vote in both the Assembly and Senate. While Republicans hold strong majorities in both houses they don’t hold two-thirds in either house, controlling just 63 of the 66 needed in the 99-member Assembly and 19 of the 22 needed in the 33-member Senate. And Democratic support needed to carry an override vote appears unlikely to materialize.

Should support materialize for veto overrides, however, among the vetoes mentioned as possible targets for an override is Evers’ partial veto that raised per pupil categorical aid to school districts by an additional $63 per pupil in the first year and $38 per pupil  in the second year.  That veto committed the state to spend $65 million more on public education than Republican lawmakers intended. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) suggested deleting that increase as a possibility earlier this summer.

Another possible target for an override is Evers’ partial veto that converted a newly created “supplement per pupil aid” program aimed at aiding a select group of school districts that receive little or no state general aid into a program that benefits all school districts.

However, with no floor votes scheduled in September and local school leaders currently working to finalize their budgets, a mid-October vote that would reduce state resources for schools may look less and less appealing even to lawmakers who might otherwise like to nullify the governor’s action.