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EXCLUSIVE: Robin Vos attended a conference in Brazil during Sept. 20 special session
On the day of the special session on child care funding and workforce challenges, the Republican Assembly Speaker went to a National Conference of State Legislatures event at a five-star hotel in Rio.
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Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sept. 20, the day the legislature was scheduled to convene for a special session called by the governor to address child care funding and workforce challenges, The Recombobulation Area has learned.
Information from a public records request regarding the Speaker’s official calendar shows that Vos departed on a flight to Rio on Monday, Sept. 18, and was in Brazil through Sept. 24.
The Republican from Burlington was attending a conference put on by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The event was titled the “Legislative Leaders’ International Symposium” and was held from Sept. 20 to Sept. 24 at the JW Marriott Copacabana, a five-star hotel, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Vos served as the president of NCSL in two separate stints. He was president from 2019 to 2021, and served out the remainder of a term from Jan. 2023 to Aug. 2023, after Idaho Speaker Scott Bedke stepped down to assume his new role as lieutenant governor. Following the selection of new executive officers in August, Vos was formally named NCSL’s President Emeritus.
The Assembly Speaker has not yet responded to several inquiries regarding this trip, the special session, and additional international travel this year, including on if any Wisconsin taxpayer dollars went toward Vos’ travel costs.
On Aug. 8, Gov. Evers called a special session to be held on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 12 p.m., for the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature “to complete their work on the 2023-25 biennial budget and pass a meaningful, comprehensive plan to address the state’s longstanding, generational workforce challenges.” Notably, a proposal to continue to fund the state’s award-winning Child Care Counts program was removed from the state budget by Republicans in the Joint Finance Committee in a vote that took place at 2:30 a.m. on June 16. The governor’s special session proposed continuing to fund that program using more than $350 million in funding from the state surplus, and also included proposals for a variety of workforce-related issues, including a new paid family and medical leave program, and funding for the construction of a new engineering building project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
On Sept. 20, leaders from the State Assembly and State Senate gaveled in to the special session, but took no action on the proposed bills. On many occasions since Tony Evers became governor, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature has responded to special sessions called by the Democratic governor by gaveling-in and gaveling-out within seconds, but this was a slightly different approach where legislative leaders gaveled-in and then adjourned.
Vos was not in Wisconsin when this occurred. He was in Rio de Janeiro, where the NCSL conference held an opening reception that featured a “spectacular view of Copacabana on the pool deck of the JW rooftop.”
The conference in Brazil included speeches from various leaders from several organizations, including the American Chamber of Commerce, Global Business Culture, and Gaia Training, along with the NCSL, per information on the conference provided to The Recombobulation Area. A panel discussion on energy policy featured other state legislative leaders from the U.S., including Winnie Brinks, the Democratic majority leader of the Michigan Senate, and Odgen Driskill, Republican president of the Wyoming Senate, but Vos was not a scheduled speaker or panelist at any of the events at the four-day conference.
The conference also included an “excursion” to Christ the Redeemer and a tour at the Tiradentes Palace, the current seat of the Rio Assembly, according to NCSL's official conference agenda.
Vos, the longest-serving Assembly Speaker in Wisconsin’s history, has faced scrutiny over his international travel before.
A 2018 report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that Vos received $13,000 in travel and perks that year, a year in which he went on a trip to France with the NCSL, bringing the total received in travel and other perks to $57,000 from 2014 to 2018. During that time, Vos was joined in trips to London, Iceland and France by Cliff Rosenberger, then the speaker of the Ohio House, who was later investigated by the FBI for his travel and other matters, and then resigned, per the Journal Sentinel report.
The trip to Brazil is Vos’ second international trip with NCSL in 2023. He traveled to Brussels, Belgium, in July, while he was still the organization’s president. There, he met with the European Committee of the Regions (CoR). A press release from NCSL says the visit “aims to strengthen the ties between the United States and Europe and foster cooperation and understanding among subnational legislative bodies.”
Vos also this year traveled to Ireland with the American Irish State Legislators Caucus, an organization for which he is a national co-chair. That visit occurred in late August.
BBC News’ political correspondent from Northern Ireland covered that visit, and described Vos as “a man best known for sacking a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice he once hired to investigate electoral fraud.” Another publication, covering the visit to Stormont in Northern Ireland, quoted Vos, who said, “We are here now to remind everybody that the strong relationship between Ireland and the United States is unbreakable.”
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As for the special session on child care funding and workforce challenges, the State Senate later introduced the bill at the request of Gov. Evers, and it was referred to the Committee on Economic Development and Technical Colleges. It was given a public hearing in that committee on Oct. 11 (We talked to Democratic State Sen. Kelda Roys about that hearing, in a podcast). It was never referred to committee or given a public hearing in the State Assembly.
On Oct. 13, Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu proposed scrapping the governor’s plan entirely, replacing it with a package that included a $2 billion income tax cut, an expansion of a tax credit for parents, an expanded tax deduction for private school tuition, more restrictive changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system, and no new funding for child care, paid leave, or the UW-Madison engineering building. Both chambers have since passed the bill, with no Democratic support.
Assembly Republicans also introduced and passed a series of bills on child care, which were met with criticism from many child care providers, and received no Democratic support. The State Senate held a public hearing on those bills in October, but has taken no further action. Yesterday, Nov. 14, was the end of the Senate’s fall session, and the bills were not included in the floor session.
A recent Washington Post feature story detailed work being done by child care providers in Wisconsin to rally support for funding in the special session. On the morning of Sept. 20, that group arrived at the Capitol hours before the special session’s scheduled 12 p.m. start time to meet with legislators to voice their concerns. One woman and her 11-year-old son had left before sunrise to drive five hours from Ashland for the special session, according to the story.
All the while, the state’s most powerful Republican legislator was in another hemisphere entirely.
This story may update with new information.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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