By Ryan Ekvall │ Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Hold onto your wallets, Wisconsin. Your state legislators are back in session.
The 2013-14 legislative session began Monday with a whole lot of “Kumbaya” from two parties that haven’t gotten along very well in recent years.
Aside from the customary motions — including the swearing-in of 25 new Assembly members and a new Assembly speaker — there wasn’t much action in either chamber.
But Legislative leaders from both sides expressed hope for bipartisanship this session, a refrain often repeated throughout the day and an ostensible turning away from the divisive politics that have marked the Legislature over the past two years — amid controversial acts and recall movements.
That call for bipartisanship quickly eroded via the usual bickering and slights.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said Republicans had a “gerrymandered mandate” after winning back control of the Senate in the November elections — after the majority GOP presided over the redistricting process in the past session.
That criticism was mere “Monday morning quarterbacking,” to Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate’s majority leader again.
Newly elected Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he would consider the best ideas from both parties on mining regulation reform legislation, but he didn’t mince words about legislative control.
“Republicans are in charge of the Assembly, Republicans are in charge of the Senate and Gov. (Scott) Walker is in the governor’s office,” he said.
That control comes with strings attached, however. Walker has asked legislators to shy away from right-to work legislation and from ending same-day voter registration, an attempt to quell an electorate divided by Act 10, its controversial curbing of public sector collective bargaining and the recall effort that followed.
Walker is up for re-election in 2014 and the budget he signs in June, along with the number of jobs created in the state, will likely be the focal point of the next campaign, an elongated John Doe investigation into the governor’s former aides when he was Milwaukee County executive notwithstanding.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle, though, said there could be compromise to solve issues they feel the state should address. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said closing the “skills gap” in the workforce was at the top of the Democrats’ agenda.
Fitzgerald noted a jobs training bill — which would require funding for manufacturers or vocational schools — could be part of a mining bill. In the failed Joint Finance Committee version of the failed bill last session, $1 million annually was allocated to jobs training in fields related to mining.
Vos and Fitzgerald set a spring timeline for a mining bill to pass.
Barca talked of passing economic-development measures, such as a venture capital bill, which would transfer millions of taxpayer dollars to investors to seek opportunities in Wisconsin startups. Many Republicans, including Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Finance Committee, have supported the state allocating funds for a venture capital program.
Both sides discussed the possibility of increased funding for education, though no specifics were offered.
With an improved fiscal situation in the state, Vos is pushing an across-the-board income tax cut, a plan he reiterated at the Capitol on Inauguration Day.
Barca agreed there may be room for income tax reform, though he had other details in mind.
“They did raise income taxes last session on the poor,” Barca said, referring to cuts to the earned income tax and homestead credits. He said those cuts should be restored before Republicans go for across-the-board cuts.
Sounds like “Kumbaya” is over.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]