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Senate to reconvene to take up special election bill

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has called for changes to election law after a judge ordered Gov. Scott Walker to call two special elections.

STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

The governor would no longer be required to call special elections for vacant legislative seats “as promptly as possible,” under a measure the Senate plans to take up next week.

The proposal is the promised response from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, to a Dane County judge’s order last week that Gov. Scott Walker call special elections for two vacant legislative seats. The bill, if passed, would override that order.

On Monday evening, the Department of Justice, which is representing Walker in the lawsuit brought by a group led by former Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder, asked the judge to delay her order by one week, to allow time for the Legislature to pass the bill and make the lawsuit moot. DOJ asked her to rule on their emergency motion Tuesday.

Senators have ended their regular period of voting but would come back in what is called “extraordinary session” to vote on the bill on April 4. The Senate Committee on Elections and Utilities plans to hold a public hearing on the bill Wednesday.

At least one Democrat decried the Senate’s move as “the height of corruption” while another called it “as crooked as a bag of snakes.”

Fitzgerald said Monday he was open to the bill including a Democratic proposal that special elections be called within 60 days of a vacancy occurring. As initially proposed, the bill sets no time frame, creating the possibility that a governor could hold a vacant seat open for more than a year.

Typically, legislative elections are held in the fall in even-numbered years. All Assembly seats and half of the Senate are up for election those years. When a lawmaker resigns midterm, current law requires the governor to call a special election if the vacancy occurs before the second week of May in an election year. When vacancies occur after that date they are filled during the general election that year.

Under the proposed bill special legislative elections couldn’t be held after April spring elections in even-numbered years and would have to be called by early December in the preceding year.

But there would no longer be statutory language directing the governor to call a special election on a specific timeline. Fitzgerald emphasized that the state Constitution still requires the governor to fill such vacancies, but it doesn’t specify a time frame.

“This eliminates the need for multiple elections in a short timeline, saving taxpayer dollars and avoiding voter confusion,” Fitzgerald said.

The proposal comes in response to a Dane County judge’s ruling last week that Walker call special elections to fill two legislative seats that were vacated in late December. One is in the 42nd Assembly District, which includes the town of Dane. The other is in the 1st Senate District, which includes Door County.

Walker decided not to call special elections for those seats because the Legislature was nearing the end of its work for the year. In its filing Monday, DOJ said Walker would call the election for June 12 if the motion is granted or not. But the motion warns such an election would cause “voter confusion and the wasteful expenditures of time and money,” which is why the Legislature plans to change the law, rendering the lawsuit moot because under the proposed bill Walker would be barred from calling a special election after the April 3 spring election.

The bill language seeks to circumvent the judge’s ruling, stating “this act first applies to a vacancy existing on the effective date of this subsection, notwithstanding any other law, court order, or order of the governor.”

The Senate Organizational Committee voted 3-2 and the Assembly Organizational Committee voted 5-3, both along party lines Monday, to reconvene on April 4 to take up the bill. The Senate met for its last scheduled regular session last week.

The Senate plans to take up and amend with the new proposal an election-related bill that has already received a public hearing and committee vote, but didn’t pass the Senate.

Last week Dane County Judge Josann Reynolds lambasted Walker and DOJ for arguing state law didn’t require Walker to call special elections. She ordered he call a special election by Thursday, which means it would take place in late May or early June.

Walker and Fitzgerald argued the special election would be a waste of taxpayer money because it would occur in between the spring and fall elections.

Under current law, Walker could have ordered the special election by Jan. 2 and it would have been held concurrently with next week’s spring election, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The bill amendment would extend when a special election primary must be held from four to eight weeks before the general special election. Also it would increase the minimum time period between a governor’s order and a special election from 62 to 124 days, and the maximum period from 77 to 154 days.

Democrats have said Republicans are trying to avoid another special election loss.

“Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans are so desperate to maintain their grip on power that they are changing laws to silence voters,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.

“The Republican-led efforts to prevent court-ordered special elections from being held is the height of corruption and the public should not accept this abuse of power.”

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said the bill is “as crooked as a bag of snakes.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.