Last week, legislative Republicans thought they had a "gotcha" when they discovered two Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin to slow passage of Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union bill had sponsored the rule that Republicans now are using to defend a vote on that bill.
The legality of the March 9 vote is now pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Implementation of the law was halted last week after Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne sued, charging that legislators violated the state open-meetings law by giving less than two hours' notice for a hastily called conference committee meeting.
In their defense, legislative leaders cited Senate Rule 93, which says that when the Legislature is in special session, meeting notices only need to be posted on the legislative bulletin board, with no mention of any time frame. The rule was co-authored by Democratic Sens. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and Fred Risser, D-Madison — two of the "Wisconsin 14" who fled to Illinois last month.
According to research by the Legislative Reference Bureau, the rules that were passed in 1979 by the Assembly and in 1983 by the Senate made permanent procedures that the Legislature had adopted repeatedly since at least 1931 when going into special sessions.
"Prior to 1979, there was no rule governing special sessions; it was common for the legislature to adopt separate or amended rules for special sessions," said Michael Keane, senior legislative analyst at the bureau.
The routine nature of the rules may explain why neither Risser nor Cullen remembered co-authoring them 28 years ago.