Wisconsin Capitol

EAU CLAIRE — As they prepare to launch new terms, Chippewa Valley legislators are pledging to seek areas of bipartisan agreement.

While that may be music to the ears of residents seeking more cooperation and less partisan bickering in Wisconsin’s Legislature, lawmakers acknowledged that it remains to be seen if Democrats and Republicans will find a way to work together on solutions to problems they agree need addressing.

Expanding broadband, fixing roads and securing the balance of funding for the planned new science building at UW-Eau Claire are among the priorities regional lawmakers from both parties listed for 2021 that they said offer the most promise for bipartisan agreement.

But despite the hope and promise associated with the start of a new legislative session, Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, warned that relations between Republicans and Democrats aren’t starting off on the right foot because of a lingering area of COVID-19 pandemic disagreement: masks.

GOP leaders aren’t allowing virtual options for committees or sessions but also aren’t requiring those in attendance to wear masks — a set of circumstances that had some Assembly Democrats threatening to skip today’s inauguration ceremony. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers swore in the Assembly’s 38 Democratic members virtually last week so they didn’t need to attend today’s formal event to begin their terms.

“When we can’t even come together and agree to keep each other, press and Capitol staff safe from a pandemic, I’m not feeling optimistic that the parties are going to be coming together to help the people of the state of Wisconsin,” Emerson said.

While Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said he fears progress will be difficult when it appears the top priority of many state Republicans is to make the governor look bad, Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, argued cooperation is a two-way street and said Evers should issue fewer executive orders and do more negotiating with Republican leaders.

“It’s a give-and-take and I’m hoping the governor will realize that,” Summerfield said. “At the end of the day, we all know it’s not going to be all rainbows and unicorns, but we can continue to work for what’s best for the people of Wisconsin.”

Two major items on the agenda that legislators will have to address this year are drawing new legislative districts in response to the decennial census and passing a 2021-23 state budget. Neither are likely to be easy.

Redistricting

Many Democrats have long advocated following the Iowa model and forming a nonpartisan commission to draw political boundaries, but GOP leaders have resisted those calls and maintained that duty should remain the responsibility of the Legislature. Evers even formed a People’s Maps Commission to take comments and make recommendations about new boundaries, but Republicans haven’t shown any inclination to heed the panel’s findings.

“This is going to become a huge discussion,” predicted Smith, who intends to reintroduce a bill calling for creation of a nonpartisan commission to draw the maps.

Smith maintained that gerrymandered maps lead to strongly partisan, safe districts in which legislators aren’t held accountable when their actions don’t reflect the will of the people.

“There is no fear of the voter,” he said. “We need to put fear back into legislators when it comes to how voters react.”

Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, expressed doubt that a genuinely nonpartisan commission could be created.

“I’m really skeptical about anything being nonpartisan in this day and age,” Bernier said. “I don’t know of any true independents anymore.”

Democrats have argued that the maps created 10 years ago, when Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, were designed to give Republicans an unfair advantage, as reflected in their huge legislative majorities in an evenly divided swing state. However, the dynamics have changed this time around, with Republicans still holding majorities in the Assembly and the Senate but Evers now having the power to veto GOP-drawn maps.

“Our job is to send a redistricting bill to the governor and have him sign it, just like the Legislature has always done,” Summerfield said.

Bernier agreed, saying she believes the current system is fair and the process likely will play out as it has in the past with divided government.

“The checks and balances are there now,” Bernier said. “Evers can veto it, and then it will go to the court. That will probably be how it will go again, I suppose.”

Budget

When it comes to the state budget, area Republicans said it’s too early to talk specifics because the full fiscal impact of the pandemic isn’t clear yet. But west-central Wisconsin will have a voice in the process, with Bernier and Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, holding seats on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. Evers is expected to release his spending plan in mid-February.

“It looks like the budget situation for the state isn’t going to be horrible, but we still have six months to see what resources we will have available,” said Summerfield, who expressed optimism that the Legislature and governor will be able to agree on a budget.

Bernier said she fears the governor will propose a budget full of new spending proposals that Republicans will reject out of concern for the state’s fiscal condition.

“I don’t believe we will have the opportunity to invest in other priorities,” Bernier said. “We don’t want to have to cut, so our budget priorities likely will be the things we’ve always set as priorities such as education, infrastructure and funding county and local government.”

Bernier and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Washington, suggested that assessing the residual effects of COVID-19 will play a major role in the decision-making process.

“With the impacts of the pandemic still being felt in our area, I believe that we must and will continue to find innovative, bipartisan solutions to our fiscal policy challenges,” Petryk said. “These include supporting our workforce, expanding rural broadband capacity in western Wisconsin and maintaining an environment where our local businesses can continue to economically heal, invest and expand.”

Both Emerson and Smith pointed to accepting federal Medicaid funding as a step Wisconsin should consider to bolster its finances.

“We need to do everything we can to bolster the working people of our state,” said Emerson, who called for supporting small businesses and local governments that have been struggling because of the pandemic.

Summerfield advocated supporting small businesses by limiting government regulations that stand in the way of their success.

Common ground

Expanding access to broadband was an issue cited as a priority by nearly every legislator reached last week by the Leader-Telegram, with Smith claiming the pandemic highlighted the crucial role high-speed internet plays today in business, health care and education.

“I think we’re in agreement that this needs to happen, but we have to get past the fear of spending money because it’s not going to be cheap,” Smith said.

Broadband expansion, especially to underserved rural areas of the state, is a top priority for Summerfield, who will chair the Assembly’s Science, Technology and Broadband Committee. He discussed the possibility of tax relief for broadband companies to make it more efficient for them to extend service to more households and businesses.

Local legislators on both sides of the aisle also said a top priority would be pushing to get the second half of funding — $147 million — for a new science and health sciences building at UW-Eau Claire into the next state budget. UW-Eau Claire is allocated $109 million toward the new building in the current budget, but the remainder of funding was not included in the UW System’s 2021-23 budget proposal.

Other issues

In the upcoming session, Smith called for the Legislature to take long-delayed action to protect the public from COVID-19, saying, “When it comes to public health, there should be no question at all: Listen to the experts, let the health services do their job and get them the resources they need. It’s time to quit playing politics with public health.”

To approve another coronavirus relief bill, “everybody’s got to get in compromise mode,” Summerfield said.

Emerson mentioned housing as another area where she believes the parties can and should be able to work together.

“We can’t get people to move to an area if they can’t find a house or an apartment let alone one that is affordable,” she said.

In her position as chair of the Senate’s Elections, Ethics and Rural Issues Committee, Bernier plans to consider legislation providing more specific direction regarding elections. That includes the use of ballot drop boxes — a concept she said is not specifically authorized by state statutes but was widely used in 2020 because of concerns about mail delivery and the safety of in-person voting during the pandemic.

“I’m not averse to drop boxes as long as all security measures are in place,” Bernier said, mentioning protection against theft, fire and precipitation. “I don’t go along with the hair-on-fire Republicans that believe there is voter fraud everywhere you look, but I want to make sure to close every vulnerability.”

Bernier said she also expects the Legislature to look at reforms for the state’s unemployment compensation system and to consider a bill calling for implementation of what she called science-based reading methods.

Petryk said he plans to focus on strengthening the state’s workforce pipeline through support for apprenticeship programs and by helping people with disabilities and those in prison train for, find and keep careers.

Regional GOP Reps. Jesse James of Altoona, Rob Stafsholt of New Richmond, Treig Pronschinske of Mondovi and Zimmerman did not respond to emails sent to their legislative offices seeking comment.