West-central Wisconsin lawmakers authored 61 bills in the 2017-18 legislative session that were signed into law.
But for a second straight session, not one successful bill was written by a Democrat.
Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire introduced a total of 51 bills, but none of them saw the light of day in a Legislature controlled by Republicans for the past eight years.
By contrast, 11 regional Republican lawmakers were successful in having 34 percent of the 181 bills they introduced in the recently completed session passed into law.
That count only includes bills in which the GOP legislators — Sen. Terry Moulton of the town of Seymour, former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls and Reps. Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie, James Edming of Glen Flora, Bob Kulp of Stratford, Warren Petryk of the town of Pleasant Valley, Treig Pronschinske of Mondovi, Romaine Quinn of Barron, Rob Stafsholt of New Richmond, Rob Summerfield of Bloomer and Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls — were the lead author or chief sponsor of the companion bill in the other house of the Legislature. Resolutions were not counted in the totals.
All the statistics come from Wheeler Reports, a news service that tracks state government.
Moulton, who is not seeking re-election this fall in the 23rd Senate District seat he has held for eight years, led the area delegation by getting 17 of his 37 bills signed into law.
“I just tried to work hard and was in a position on a number of bills where somebody in the Assembly was looking for a lead author on a particular bill and in many cases they came to me,” said Moulton, whose successful legislation included bills that ended the need for a water ski spotter in boats with an approved rearview mirror, eliminated the minimum age requirement for hunters accompanied by mentors and allowed terminally ill people to try drugs that haven’t completed the federal approval process.
Harsdorf, who resigned from her 10th Senate District seat last fall to become secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, was the runner-up with nine bills signed into law, followed by Quinn with eight, Pronschinske with six and Bernier with five.
“The numbers mean nothing to me personally. I just think it’s important to be part of legislation that does important things,” Bernier said, pointing out that she often is more interested in improving existing laws than in creating new ones.
Vinehout was shut out despite authoring more bills — 46 — than any other legislator. Only one of her bills even got a hearing, she said.
“I would think that at least a few of the 46 bills I introduced would have had enough merit to hold a hearing,” an obviously frustrated Vinehout said, mentioning bills she introduced to provide free tuition to students attending technical colleges and two-year UW campuses and to require accountability in broadband advertising as examples.
That’s a lot of effort with not much to show for it, she added.
“What it shows you is how partisan the Legislature has become,” Vinehout said. “A good idea is a good idea, and it shouldn’t matter if it has a D or an R behind it.”
Wachs, who authored five bills, agreed, assigning much of the blame to Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for our society to have people bottlenecking and throttling bill ideas like Robin Vos,” Wachs said, noting that many of the bills he writes start with suggestions from constituents.
Of course, the odds of Vinehout or Wachs getting bills passed likely weren’t improved by both of them challenging GOP Gov. Scott Walker in this election year, thus making Republicans even less inclined to help them gain a legislative victory. Wachs recently dropped out of the race and is not seeking re-election to his Assembly seat.
The only other area Democrat, Sen. Patty Schachtner of Somerset, introduced two bills, neither of which passed, since taking office after a special election in January.
Wachs pointed to Republican-led partisan gerrymandering after the 2010 census as a key reason for the increase in partisanship and resulting inability of Democrats to get legislation passed.
“Here are the people who wrap themselves in the American flag and redistrict in a way that makes it nearly impossible for Democrats to get elected in numbers that would allow true bipartisanship,” Wachs said. “This is a usurping of the democratic process. I just think it’s really awful.”
Harsdorf, who served in the minority and majority during her time in the Legislature, said she recalls the challenge of being a minority legislator.
“It’s very difficult,” she said. “I remember not even getting a hearing on many of the bills I introduced.”
The key, she said, is to seek bipartisan support.
“I’m a big believer that it’s important to work together,” said Harsdorf, adding that she was particularly proud of her role in passing legislation to help Wisconsin combat the opioid crisis.
Bernier, who said she was proud to author a bill that enabled dental hygienists to provide care in group homes and assisting living facilities, said the best way for a minority lawmaker to get legislation passed is to partner with a majority legislator.
“If it’s a bipartisan idea, they can get it through,” she said, as long as it’s not a “poke in the eye kind of thing” designed just to get attention.
Vinehout said that’s exactly the strategy she tries to follow, working behind the scenes and feeding ideas to GOP colleagues.
“I don’t care who gets credit. I just want the job done,” Vinehout said. “I just keep telling people to steal my stuff.”
She pointed to her writing bills the previous two sessions to legalize hemp but never getting a hearing. In the 2017-18 session, Republicans took her bill, made it better and passed it, “which is awesome,” Vinehout said.
Moulton said he recalls the situation being very similar when Democrats last controlled the Legislature in 2009-10, although Leader-Telegram records show five area GOP lawmakers passed nine bills, or 11 percent of the 85 they introduced, during that session.
“I guess it’s always going to be that way,” he said. “The key is to do your best to work as hard as you can with the majority party.”
Vinehout said the danger is such partisanship gets institutionalized and never ends.
“It’s not good for democracy,” Vinehout said. “Somebody has to rise above it and stop the silliness for the good of the people of Wisconsin.”
Legislators contacted by the Leader-Telegram called attention to several bills they authored in the past session. Among them:
Summerfield was the lead author of a bill that allowed unaccompanied minors to continue attending music festivals at private venues where alcohol is served. The bill came about after the state Department of Revenue became aware of a technicality that would have forced music festivals to choose between serving alcohol to any patrons or permitting minors to attend without their parents. Moulton was lead co-sponsor of the Senate companion measure, and several area legislators signed on as co-sponsors of one of the two bills, including Democrats Wachs and Vinehout.
Pronschinske said he is proud of bills that permit people calling 911 to receive CPR instructions over the phone, authorize the use of Safe-Ride grant funds to advertise the program providing rides home to people who have been drinking and allow noodling and bow fishing for catfish — laws he believes have the potential to save lives and expand Wisconsin tourism.
Petryk highlighted his bills requiring school boards to share information about the nutritive value of foods and importance of a nutritious diet, regulating the use of certain professional credentials and changing fair employment law to limit when licensing agencies can deny licenses based on arrest or conviction records.
Quinn mentioned his bills that allowed high schools to give credits to students who complete an apprenticeship program, gave the Division of Motor Vehicles authority to waive fees to replace documents in the wake of a natural disaster and created an optional registry with the DMV for those who want to register an invisible disability. The law came about in response to a constituent with autism who had difficulty communicating with an officer after a traffic stop.
Edming pointed to his bill requiring state agencies to collaborate and develop a joint plan to assist people with disabilities in finding employment in the community.
Several Republican lawmakers emphasized that the vast majority of bills that become law pass with at least some degree of bipartisan support.
“Folks are often surprised that over the last eight years more than 92 percent of bills passed had support from legislators on both sides of the aisle,” Moulton said.
Moulton cited the Wisconsin Sportsmen’s Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators he helped put together, as a prime example.
“With a shared love of the outdoors, we’ve worked together on a number of bills to protect and advance our sporting heritage, while at the same time creating genuine friendships across the aisle that are critical when we don’t see eye-to-eye on other issues,” he said.
One point lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed on is that Wisconsin residents should feel comfortable contacting their representatives when they are concerned about a state issue or law.
“When people see something that needs changing or a law that is obsolete, it’s important that they bring that to legislators’ attention,” Harsdorf said. “It’s important for people to recognize the crucial role they play in the legislative process.”
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