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The subtle brilliance in Tony Evers’ latest special session
The governor is not only challenging the state's 1849 law on abortion rights, he's proposing to expand direct democracy in the state.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Legislative Republicans in Wisconsin have gaveled-in and gaveled-out of yet another special session. This has become a hallmark of the Republican response to the Democratic governor during his four years in office.
This is the twelfth special session that Tony Evers has called as governor. Six of those have resulted in gavel-in, gavel-outs from the Republican legislature, four others saw neither house convene as a full body, and just one (1) resulted in any piece of legislation being signed, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau, which has produced an extensive account of special sessions in Wisconsin. .
The gavel-in, gavel-outs — an almost incomprehensibly cowardly political response, refusing to reach a basic threshold of having an honest debate that we should expect from elected officials — also happened in response to special session calls on gun violence, expanding Medicaid, increasing education funding, spending the state surplus, and now on abortion rights, twice.
The one bill that did pass was to fix and modernize the state’s unemployment system, called as a special session by Evers in January 2021, after the Republican-controlled full-time legislature took a nearly 300-day break from legislating during a time of genuine crisis. The bill was eventually signed in late February 2022, and remains the first and only bill signed by the Republican-controlled Legislature under a special session.
But there is an element of this second special session on abortion rights – held 100 days after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision – that has a component of subtle brilliance to it.
As we’ve exhaustively covered here at The Recombobulation Area, the Wisconsin State Legislature is a deeply problematic, broken institution where Republicans ushered in an era of rapidly eroding small-d democracy, using what some consider to be the most gerrymandered state legislative maps in the nation to continually ignore the will of the people in Wisconsin.
Republicans in the legislature have essentially played four years of political keep-away instead of engaging with Democrats on any issues, or even doing the very basic task of debating special sessions on legislation that has the support of the overwhelming majority of voters in Wisconsin.
So here’s where Evers’ latest special session call would really make a meaningful difference in cutting through the permanent gridlock in Madison: It would open the door to direct democracy through statewide referendum.
Unlike the previous special session on abortion rights, which would have revisited the state’s outdated and unclear law from 1849 (legal challenges for which the State Supreme Court is still yet to rule on, amid Republican delays), this special session would have created a new path to challenge not only this law, but open up the possibility to take key issues that have stalled directly to voters.
As Republicans in Wisconsin remain committed to democratic backsliding – absurdly gerrymandered maps, impossible efforts to “decertify” the election, a 14-month “investigation” that found no evidence of fraud, blocking public hearings on almost all bills introduced by Democrats, these gavel-in, gavel-outs, etc. – there is perhaps no better response Evers could have delivered than to expand direct democracy and give voters more of a say in how their state government is run, not less.
We just saw in Kansas how taking the vote directly to the voters resulted in protecting access to abortion. Michigan is also seeing a similar referendum on their ballots this fall, and a similar result is expected. Evers also noted that 20 other states, including Illinois and Ohio, also allow for a similar process.
This process could make a real difference in policy implementation in Wisconsin. Take, for example, the issue of Medicaid expansion. Nearly 40 states have expanded Medicaid, and Wisconsin is the only holdout left in the Great Lakes. This fall, South Dakota voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would expand Medicaid. If it were to prevail, it would mean Medicaid expansion is seven-for-seven in ballot initiatives, after also succeeding in Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah. A similar fate would certainly be expected in Wisconsin, where Medicaid expansion has overwhelming majority support.
But since this effort would involve amending the state constitution, it would need support from the Wisconsin State Legislature in consecutive sessions, dooming it to fail as it would face an entrenched Republican majority that could soon be a supermajority.
As has so often been the case during Evers time as governor, his values are in the right place, he’s proposing to do things that would make meaningful, positive change in Wisconsin, but he is hamstrung by the broken institution of Wisconsin State Legislature, and blocked by hostile Republican leadership.
The proposal to bring democracy directly to the voters is exactly the type of reform Wisconsin needs. Gov. Evers deserves credit for working to expand democracy just as Republicans deserve scorn for their efforts to diminish it.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. His work was recently featured in The New York Times. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.