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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Emily's Post: Wisconsin Supreme Court flouts rule of law, digging in the budget barrel
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Supreme Court rules that Legislature is above its own laws

Yesterday ended up being quite the doozy for Wisconsin. With the stroke of a single Supreme Court ruling our state has thrown out the rule of law in favor of blatant power grabs.

How else to explain such a breathtakingly partisan decision?

I had been sitting in a meeting room at the Capitol, waiting for the Joint Committee on Retirement Systems to meet, when news of the Supreme Court's decision began to trickle in. The committee was supposed to discuss and vote on adding similar collective bargaining stripping provisions to the budget in order to circumvent Judge Sumi's blocking of AB10 on the grounds that its passage had violated the state's Open Meetings Law.

Instead we were told that the meeting had been postponed -- which, given that earlier in the day we'd learned that the Assembly session itself had been postponed so that this committee could meet first, raised a few suspicions in the room.

Sure enough, when I stepped outside and checked in on Twitter, there was news that the Supreme Court's decision on a matter for which it had heard oral arguments just eight days prior was about to be released.

In a deeply divided ruling, it was decided that Judge Sumi had "usurped the legislative power which the Wisconsin Constitution grants exclusively to the legislature."

The majority determined that the Open Meetings Law is not constitutional (purview of the courts) but rather simply an internal operating guide for the Legislature, and that "this court will not determine whether internal operating rules or procedural statutes have been complied with by the legislature in the course of its enactments."

In other words, they wiped their hands and said "Not our problem."

That brings into the question the very constitutionality of the Open Meetings Law -- and possibly opens the flood gates to a whole series of improperly noticed and passed bills. What of sunshine in government? I feel like this sets a pretty terrible precedent, and I'm not the only one.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson:

Justice Prosser's concurrence is longer than the order. The concurrence consists mostly of a statement of happenings. It is long on rhetoric and long on story-telling that appears to have a partisan slant.

In hastily reaching judgment, Justice Patience D. Roggensack, Justice Annette K. Ziegler, and Justice Michael J. Gableman author an order, joined by Justice David T. Prosser, lacking a reasoned, transparent analysis and incorporating numerous errors of law and fact. This kind of order seems to open the court unnecessarily to the charge that the majority has reached a pre-determined conclusion not based on the facts and the law, which undermines the majority's ultimate decision.

At its most basic level this case is about the need for government officials to follow the Wisconsin Constitution and the laws.

The District Attorney's challenge to the Budget Repair Bill asserts that the Open Meetings Law is a codification of the mandates expressly provided for in the Wisconsin Constitution. The District Attorney relies on Article IV, Section 10, "[t]he doors of each house shall be kept open," and also on Article I, Section 4: "The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged."

The legislature declared in the Open Meetings Law that the legislature would comply with the Law to the fullest extent "in conformance with article IV, section 10" of the Wisconsin Constitution. Statutes are interpreted to give effect to every word. A court assumes that the legislature says what it means, and means what it says. The words in a statute are not to be treated as rhetorical flair.

Nevertheless, the Attorney General asserts that the legislature need not abide by the Open Meetings Law; that the legislature can choose when and if it will follow the Open Meetings Law; and that courts cannot enforce the Open Meetings Law against the legislature and any of its committees.

The legislature must play by the rules of the Wisconsin Constitution and the laws.

I'm inclined to agree with the Chief Justice.

Now what about that budget…

It seems like the Supreme Courts' decision may have actually complicated matters for the GOP, who now have to scramble to add several amendments to the state budget in order to avoid losing federal funding for things like transit:

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) both said that changes would still be made to the budget, including one that would ensure that $47 million in federal aid for local transit systems won't be lost because of changes to transit workers' bargaining rights.

Essentially they'll need to exempt transit workers from the provisions in AB10 that would currently strip them of their collective bargaining rights. That's a big no-no if you want federal dollars.

There are a lot of other things wrong with the biennial budget as-is. Rep. Mark Pocan, in another of his new series of video blogs, explains that although Republicans did scale back some of Gov. Walker's proposed massive cuts to municipal recycling programs, they still haven't found a way to fully fund them, either. How short are we? $24 million -- "So at the same time we had literally hundreds of millions of dollars in new corporate tax breaks, we couldn't find the additional $24 million to fully fund the recycling program."

According to Pocan, the budget also takes some $46.8 million from a fund created by a recycling surcharge that had gone toward helping other recycling programs and instead given it to the new Dept. of Commerce to give grants to corporations.

Now if that ain't a kick in the green pants. And there's more, of course -- check the full video for the story.

Meanwhile, after a great (justified) hue and cry went up about the plans to kill funding for the WiscNet internet program, including forcing them to return nearly $40 million dollars in federal grant money, last night Republican co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee Rep. Robin Vos claimed a compromise had been reached wherein WiscNet could go on operating and accepting money for two years while the state conducted an audit to see what next steps to take.

Now, however, it appears that said "compromise" includes barring WiscNet from taking on any new clients in the meantime, and in order for the state to continue its involvement in the program beyond 2013 the committee would have to approve a plan for it.

I've already talked about why gutting WiscNet is a terrible idea -- here's some more on that, and this is a live-blog of developments related to WiscNet at the Capitol.

Don't forget, the budget also currently includes provisions to cut funding for education -- to the tune of $834 million that includes $1.6 billion in cuts to public schools, $250 million from the UW System, and $71 million from the Wisconsin technical college system. All this while they still find a way to give $2.3 billion in tax breaks to corporations.

The Assembly will also be taking up a proposal to limit the kinds of road projects that can be bid on/performed by municipal crews -- essentially handing local control of contracts over to private companies. They'll be looking to slash funding for important medical and mental health programs, too.

The list goes on and on but really what Wisconsin is currently staring down the barrel of are enormously dangerous cuts to crucial programs whose long-term effects will likely only be bad for everyone. All this while making sure to find the money to give large handouts to those least in need.

The complete budget is available here.

We're watching decades of planning and maneuvering by neo-conservative interests come to fruition, and it will take just as much, if not more planning and dedication to see them undone, let alone turned around.

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