Madison — In a late-night session that stretched from Thursday into Friday, Republicans in the state Assembly approved measures to reinstate Wisconsin’s voter ID law, tighten early voting hours, limit the ability to recall elected officials, create anti-abortion license plates and restrict access to the site of a proposed iron mine in the North Woods.
They also took a first step toward amending the state constitution to require members of the state Supreme Court to choose the chief justice, rather than having that post automatically go to the most senior justice.
Legislators from the two parties had been working together to move through a jam-packed agenda by midnight, but bitter disputes developed late Thursday that sent the session into the early morning hours.
Tensions flared after Democrats attempted to take up a bill honoring the children killed last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Republicans rejected taking that up and then advanced the bill on anti-abortion license plates, even though they had said earlier they wouldn’t take it up.
The Assembly session was supposed to be the last one of 2013, but lawmakers now are expected to be back on the floor in the coming weeks because Gov. Scott Walker announced Thursday he would call a special session to delay moving 77,500 people from BadgerCare Plus health coverage to private insurance.
Legislators approved a bill, 54-38, that would allow voters to cast a ballot without a photo ID if they signed sworn statements saying they were poor and could not obtain a photo ID without paying a fee, had a religious objection to being photographed or could not obtain birth certificates or other documentation necessary to get a photo ID. All Republicans voted in favor of the bill and all Democrats against it.
The changes are intended to overcome legal challenges to the state’s stalled law requiring proof of identity at the polls. Democrats argued putting the ID requirement in place would make it tougher for minorities, the elderly and poor people to vote and unfairly create two classes of voters — those who show IDs, and those who file affidavits.
“This bill says that poor people need to declare their indigency. It’s a scarlet letter,” said Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee).
Republicans countered the measure would ensure the ID requirement is in place for most voters for next year’s governor’s election and would boost confidence in the voting system.
“If the trust in our elections is undermined, our entire representative democracy is undermined,” said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), one of the bill’s authors.
Republicans in 2011 passed a voter ID requirement, but it was blocked last year by judges in two different cases. An appeals court reversed one of those decisions, but the other ruling blocking the law remains in effect.
The new proposal comes as a third and fourth legal challenge are being heard in federal court in Milwaukee. That trial is to wrap up Friday, and U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman will rule sometime thereafter.
The measure now goes to the Republican-run Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has said he doesn’t want to make changes to the voter ID law until he sees how more courts rule on the matter.
Also Thursday and Friday:
Recall limits. The Assembly approved two proposals limiting recalls. One passed 54-39 along party lines and the other 53-39, with Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) joining all Democrats in opposition.
One is a constitutional amendment that would restrict recalls for state and county officials to those charged with crimes or ethics violations. The other would put similar restrictions in state law for municipal and school officials.
The proposals are in response to a wave of recalls in 2011 and 2012 against Walker and state senators.
“It’s time that we return predictability to the electoral process,” said Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).
If such limits had been in place, efforts could not have gone forward to recall Walker and Republican senators over eliminating most collective bargaining for public workers, as well as to recall Democratic senators for leaving the state in 2011 to try to block the labor limits. The restrictions also would have quashed the attempts to recall Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament and County Board supervisors over a pension scandal, and Sheboygan Mayor Bob Ryan over drunken incidents and a sexual harassment complaint.
Democrats also highlighted the case of Toronto’s mayor, who recently acknowledged smoking crack. They noted a Wisconsin mayor who did that couldn’t be recalled under the GOP plan if he or she hadn’t been charged with a crime.
Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) called the moves anti-democratic.
“What are the authors afraid of?” he asked. “Why in the world are they trying to set aside the ability of voters … to recall someone who they think made a mistake? … It’s a democratic right of people to be heard and it’s something that should not be suppressed.”
The plan has a long road before it could be put in place, because it is a constitutional amendment. Both the Assembly and Senate would have to approve it before the end of next year, then again after a new set of legislators are seated in 2015. The plan would then go to voters for approval in a statewide referendum.
Chief justice. On a party-line, 54-38 vote, the Assembly voted to follow the Senate’s lead and adopted a proposal that would amend the state constitution to require the Supreme Court justices to select who among them would serve as chief justice. That would end the practice of awarding the job to the most senior justice, as has been done for over a century.
The measure passed the Senate on Tuesday in its own party-line vote, but both houses will still have to approve the measure again after next year’s elections. Voters would then decide whether to adopt the constitutional amendment in a statewide referendum.
Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield), the proposal’s main sponsor, said the state’s current system is antiquated and out of step with most other states.
“Wisconsin is one of only five states that has a seniority process,” Hutton said.
Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) rejected the bill as a political attack by Republicans on Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. The bill wouldn’t have been taken up if a member of the court’s conservative majority were leading the court, Hebl said.
Early voting. In another party-line vote, legislators approved a bill, 53-39, to set municipal clerks’ office hours to weekdays between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. — a move that would effectively end weekend voter drives in Democratic strongholds such as Milwaukee and Madison.
Rep. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said he was putting forward the plan to standardized early voting hours. He said it isn’t fair that people in many urban areas have a chance to vote on weekends or evenings, while those in rural areas don’t because they don’t have enough staff.
Opponents argued it was a barely veiled attempt to tamp down votes by Democrats.
It is the second effort by Republicans to limit early voting hours since they took complete control of state government in 2011. Before then, early voting lasted three weeks and included three weekends. The changes set in 2011 reduced the period to two weeks that include just one weekend.
The latest bill sets the hours when clerks can allow voting. Voters in areas with limited opportunities for early voting would be able to make appointments with municipal clerks tovote on weeknights after 6 p.m.
It now goes to the Senate, but leaders there have not said whether they plan to vote on it.
Mine. Public access on a proposed mine site in northern Wisconsin would be scaled back under another measure approved on a party-line, 54-39 vote.
Gogebic Taconite is pursuing a $1.5 billion open-pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The land at the mine site is enrolled in a program that gives substantial property tax cuts in exchange for agreeing to open the land for activities such as hunting, fishing and hiking.
Protesters and others have routinely entered the site and in June activists threatened workers, damaged property and stole a worker’s camera.
The bill would close access within 600 feet of roads used for iron mining and within 600 feet of most mining-related equipment. It also would require the owners of the land to pay more to close the land if it is taken away from public use, and all land would be open to deer hunting during the traditional nine-day gun season.
The Senate passed the bill on party lines last week, and it now goes to Walker.
License plate. Drivers would be able to purchase a “Choose Life” license plate, with some of the proceeds going to a new anti-abortion group, under a proposal backed on a party-line, 54-39 vote.
A vote on that bill was nearly averted when Democrats and Republicans reached a deal that would allow any group to apply to the Department of Transportation to create special license plates to promote their causes.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said he was scrapping the compromise and instead moving forward with a vote on the anti-abortion plate because he believed Democrats had “blown up” Thursday’s session. The move came just after Democrats tried to bring up the resolution honoring the Sandy Hook victims.
That effort failed 54-39, in a vote that fell mostly on partisan lines, with most Democrats in favor and most Republicans against. Republican Reps. Kathleen Bernier of Chippewa Falls and Travis Tranel of Cuba City voted for the resolution and Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick of Milwaukee voted against it.
The resolution on Sandy Hook passed the Senate with unanimous support in September.
Read more from Journal Sentinel: http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/assembly-kicks-off-tense-session-on-recalls-early-voting-hours-b99142673z1-231963621.html#ixzz2kr1Pmvfq
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