Republicans and Democrats in the state Assembly have reached a deal aimed at avoiding late-night sessions. But they could not agree on setting new rules for visitors in the Assembly gallery, which were passed over objections from Democrats on Thursday during the first floor debate of the new session.
The galleries were a major source of conflict during the 2011 protests over collective bargaining. Some opponents of the changes pushed by Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans locked themselves to the railings with bike locks while others shouted at lawmakers. Numerous observers were escorted out of the galleries by security.
The new gallery rules, which passed on a 59-37 vote, with just one Democrat joining Republicans, codify numerous restrictions on gallery visitors that had been previously used in practice and establish steps by which visitors could be banned.
The new bipartisan agreement to prevent the Assembly from doing its work in the dark of night was outlined in a "memorandum of understanding," signed by Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha; and other GOP and Democratic leaders.
The memorandum, meant to set a new bipartisan tone for the 2013-14 session, did not set a specific curfew for floor sessions, but said, "Our goal this session is to finish debate at a reasonable time."
And it detailed a number of changes aimed at achieving that goal, including having the Rules Committee meet to set expected debate schedules and times for each measure, the majority and minority leaders limiting the number of contentious bills on any one session day, and strictly enforcing existing time limits on speeches. The limits say lawmakers may speak for two minutes about tabling a bill and a total of 10 minutes.
A clock has been installed on the floor to track speaking times.
The time limit deal passed its first test on Thursday, when the Assembly debated, then voted on other new rules in just about three hours, well within the five hours allotted. They adjourned before 3 p.m.
Debate heated up over new rules for visitors in the Assembly galleries. Those rules were introduced by Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford.
The new Assembly rules say visitors may not use "audio or video devices to record, photograph, film, videotape, or in any way depict the proceedings on or about the assembly floor." And Assembly visitors are prohibited from using cellphones or pagers, reading newspapers or other printed materials, eating food or drinking beverages, displaying signs or placards, carrying bags or briefcases, or wearing hats.
The new rules also say that anyone who engages in "a prohibited action" may be removed from the galleries and not be allowed back in for 24 hours. For a second violation during a two-year session, that person would be barred from the galleries until the next regularly scheduled floor period, and for a third violation the person would not be allowed back for the remainder of the legislative session.
Democrats warned that the new Republican rules would infringe on free speech.
"Something you seem to forget, the First Amendment is as important as the Second," Barca said.
Vos said the rules were aimed at bringing more decorum to the galleries.
"The goal of having the gallery there is to allow any citizen to observe, but unfortunately during the course of the last two years, far too many observers became participants," Vos said. "When they choose to participate against our rules, there are going to be consequences."
The new Assembly rules also say lawmakers must meet dress codes, including coats and ties for male lawmakers and appropriate dress for female lawmakers. Those in violation would not be allowed to participate in debate, but coats and ties will be available for those who don't meet the code, Vos said.