During Gov. Scott Walker's bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Republican legislative leaders were frequently asked if the governor's absence had an adverse effect on the legislative process. Now that Walker is back in Wisconsin after exiting the race in September, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, says it makes a difference having him around.
"Definitely," Fitzgerald said in an interview looking ahead at the new year. "Just him physically not being here — although the Legislature does their own thing on the budget — that probably isn't affected as much as individual pieces of legislation ... The idea that you can have a discussion with him on individual pieces of legislation, there's always value in that, and sometimes you get an angle you weren't thinking of. So, yeah, it's actually more important right now than it ever is, when you're back in session working on individual pieces of legislation."
With the number of remaining days in the current session dwindling, lawmakers have to move quickly and aggressively to drum up support for their proposals. Fitzgerald expects the Senate to be on the floor a few days in January, a few days in February and likely a few in March.
A top priority, Fitzgerald said, is to pass a package of economic development bills introduced after a statewide listening tour conducted by the Senate Economic Development Committee.
Those proposals, introduced by Sens. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, include efforts to improve broadband access, create regional investment funds, encourage research and development and cut through bureaucratic roadblocks that delay economic growth.
The Senate also plans to vote Jan. 20 on a bill that would overhaul the state's century-old civil service system. The Assembly passed its own version of the bill in October, but it has some differences from an amended version passed by a Senate committee the same month.
A key disagreement is over a "ban the box" provision in the original bill, which would remove questions about an applicant's criminal record from initial job application forms. Interviewers could ask about certain crimes later in the process.
The Assembly version kept that provision, but the amendment to the Senate bill offered by Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, would remove it.
"I think they'll work something out," Fitzgerald said. "If they don’t, maybe one will convince the other it’s the way to go. We’ve given the Assembly a heads up, 'Hey, this might come back and you might have to try to concur or not concur with the amendment that’s there.'"
Regardless of that disagreement, Fitzgerald said, there is widespread support for the proposal within his caucus and he expects it to pass in some form.
He also expects to see votes on some education bills — mostly tying up "loose ends" from the budget — and public safety legislation, including Marinette Republican Rep. John Nygren's bills aimed at heroin and opiate abuse prevention.
It's unlikely, Fitzgerald said, that the Senate will pursue any major changes to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. The jobs agency has been plagued with reports of bad loans, accounting failures and high turnover long enough that many lawmakers in both parties agree changes are needed.
However, Fitzgerald said, he's concerned about throwing out the positive aspects of the agency and starting from scratch, noting that there are success stories at the local level in which WEDC has played a direct or indirect role.
"As much of a cloud that’s been created at the top of the agency level and some of the things that have existed since day one — I'm starting to see those somewhat subside," Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he wouldn't definitively say the Senate won't take up any legislation this session dealing with WEDC, but he said there's a growing sentiment that the agency should be given some time to right itself under its new CEO hired this fall.
Asked about a package of bills introduced by Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, aimed at improving safety in the state's corrections facilities, Fitzgerald said he hadn't had a chance to review them yet but he'd be happy to work with Erpenbach on addressing those issues.
As for specific issues within the correctional system, like reports of assaults on juvenile inmates at the Lincoln Hills School, Fitzgerald said responsibility lies first within the governor's administration to address them. If the administration then comes to lawmakers asking for a legislative fix, it's their job to help, he said.