If there was belief in any quarter that Wisconsin Republicans are willing to adopt even the most sensible suggestions from Democrats on how to improve Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair bill," it died today, before my very eyes. It was a display that established the hollowness of Walker's admonition to the state's 14 missing Senate Democrats to "come back and debate."
Today in the state Assembly, there were many great issues, but absolutely no debate. It was farce without humor.
At issue were Republican motions to table each and every one of the more than 120 amendments offered by Democrats to Walker's bill. The Democrats were the only ones who spoke. Many of the Republicans were not even present -- their votes on each amendment were cast by colleagues in adjacent seats. And the ones who were there seemed to be hardly paying attention.
This slap-down of amendments has been going on for the last several days. As of this morning, 57 amendments had been tabled, in over 45 hours of session so far this week.
Early this morning, the Republicans announced they were prohibiting their colleagues from introducing any additional amendments and would limit discussion on each amendment that had already been introduced to 10 minutes. That means the "debate" over amendments would conclude by this afternoon, and the Assembly would take up debate on the budget bill as a whole.
Today's session began at 6 a.m.; I got there just after 10 and stayed until after noon. It was more than enough time to see what's been happening.
There were amendments to protect Medicaid from the governor's demand that he be given vast new powers to restrict eligibility. Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau), a former police officer, spoke in favor of an amendment that would limit the amount that employees who live below the poverty line would have to pay toward their health insurance to 6%, about what it is now.
Danou said the changes could make health care unaffordable for this presumably small number of families: "We're punishing people and are going to make things worse."
Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) weighed in on the same amendment, urging his GOP colleagues, "This is a chance to show your faith, show your Christian charity."
That left 20 seconds for Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), who commented that he thought the budget bill imposed "lots of austerity for the poor and working class," even as the governor and the Legislature were delivering new tax breaks -- $140 million in just the last few weeks -- to "the governor's special-interest friends."
The motion to table the amendment passed on a 58-38 party-line vote.
Amendment 115 would alter the part of the bill that allows the governor to make sweeping changes to the Medicaid eligibility by gubernatorial fiat under his emergency powers rule. This would be accomplished by striking down the stipulation that these powers be invoked only if "necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, safety or welfare."
The Dems said this would allow the governor to assume these powers any time, for any reason, for any agency. "I find that an incredible power grab," said Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay).
Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton) agreed this provision created a dangerous precedent, which she illustrated by spinning a nightmare scenario: What if some future governor wanted to cite this vast new power to declare an emergency and direct the Department of Revenue to end all the tax breaks for corporations and wealthy residents that are so near and dear to Republican hearts?
"We can take this bill and flip it on its head," said Schaber.
The Republicans were unfazed. The amendment was tabled on a 58-38 vote.
The next amendment would have required the state to conduct an audit before selling off power plants to private interests like the Koch brothers. The Democrats said doing so was simply sound business practice. But even as they made their case, they knew it was hopeless.
"We have become the American equivalent of the British House of Lords," charged Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie). "We have now become a ceremonial body. It is such a travesty that we've relegated all our power to a benevolent dictator."
Hebl urged his GOP colleagues to be more mindful of the tremendous powers they were carving out for the executive branch. "You've got to be concerned about what you wish for," Hebl said. "Gov. Walker is not going to be governor forever. Frankly, if he's governor all four years I'll be surprised."
Rep. Hulsey, who spoke next, took issue with Hebl's characterization: "We have not seen in the last week evidence of the benevolence of this dictator."
Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly minority leader, closed out the 10 minutes allotted for this amendment with what in other times might seem like a sensible plea. He said that if the state really was going to allow such business deals, "can't we at least make sure the taxpayers are going to get a good deal?"
Such arguments were so sound they brought about a crack in the GOP's resolve. The amendment was tabled on a vote of 56 to 40.
Amendment 117 concerned the new world of state employee relationships that Walker envisions, governed only by civil service protections. Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) says this would leave these employees without a just-cause standard, meaning "you can be disciplined for the color of your hair," without rights or recourse. The proposed amendment would have afforded these workers some rights through labor arbitrators.
"I think we can't leave these workers without these protections," Kessler said.
The GOP's answer: Yes we can. The amendment was tabled on a vote of 59 to 37.
Amendment 118 would have included Capitol police and state firefighters in the governor's exemption of law enforcement from the loss of their collective bargaining rights. It was as near as could be imagined to an amendment that would benefit the governor, since the failure to exclude these workers is a major reason that other law enforcement officers and firefighters have sided against Walker's bill.
"I would hope we could fix this," said Rep. Danou. "I would hope that this [not excluding these workers] was an oversight on the governor's part."
But the Republicans in the Assembly were fine with it. The amendment was tabled on a vote of 58 to 38.
As happened all morning, the 10 minutes of discussion per amendment was periodically interrupted by an introduction, in which members of the public in attendance were acknowledged. The Democrats making these acknowledgements kept them brief, but worked in some comments that related to the issues at hand.
Here, Rep. Nick Milroy (D-Superior) gave a shout-out to a very ill-looking woman named Ruth, who he said had stage 4 colo-rectal cancer. Ruth was standing next to her husband Jeff, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. Milroy explained that Ruth was among those whose Medicaid benefits are at risk because of the bill's provisions. He told the Assembly that Ruth considers the 14 state senators who have left the state as having granted her "a stay of execution."
Milroy pointed to the couple and said: "Thank you for helping us put a face on what we are about to do here." This was greeted with applause, not just from the Democrats in the chamber but from the Republicans as well. One newly elected Republican, Howard Marklein of Spring Green, actually rose from his chair to give the couple a standing ovation, moments after he voted to table an amendment to protect them.
The next amendment, the last one I stayed for, was 119, which would require unions to pay the entire administrative costs of deducting union dues from employee paychecks, rather than ending the practice of having this occur. It would effectively address what proponents say is the entire reason for this change -- that government should not be on the hook for these costs.
The Democrats hardly even bothered to argue the merits of this amendment, which was tabled on a 58-38 vote. Instead they spoke about the process that was playing out in the Wisconsin State Assembly. They promised that the fight was not over; sure, their amendments could be tabled with dispatch, but they would still take as much time as was appropriate to speak out against the bill as a whole, when the floor was given over for that.
"You can table amendment after amendment after amendment," said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison). "It's just another way to illustrate all the bad ideas in this bill." He disputed the claim that the Dems and GOP had struck a "deal" to limit debate: "This deal -- 'you do this or else' -- that's not a deal. That's a hostage situation."
Rep. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) spoke next, arguing that the bill as drafted contained many flaws that even those who support it should want to see corrected.
"This bill is a catastrophe," she said. "We have seen a total unwillingness of the other side even to acknowledge the deficiencies in the drafting of this bill.... I guarantee you that [a few months] down the road, the problems we've been able to identify, and even more importantly those we haven't, are going to begin haunting [the people who pushed it through]."
Roys also made mention of the crowds in the Capitol, which were being kept at some distance from the Assembly chamber by law enforcement personnel.
"Even as we employ the same Capitol police [whose rights will be reduced] to keep them away from our door," she reflected, "we can still hear them."