December 18, 2014

Fitzgerald says open debate on right-to-work unavoidable in Wisconsin

Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (PHOTO: WRN)

Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (PHOTO: WRN)

The top Republican in the state Senate says the Legislature “cannot avoid engaging in an open debate of Right to Work,” so he plans to take up the issue early next session. Appearing on conservative Milwaukee radio host Charlie Syke’s show Thursday morning, Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said lawmakers “can’t tiptoe through this session without addressing this…We’re not tackling this six months from now…We have to deal with this issue right now.”

Typical right-to-work laws prohibit employers from requiring union membership as a condition of employment. In a statement released after the appearance, Fitzgerald said what form a possible bill would take remains unclear. He said “While we do not know what a state-specific version of Right to Work will look like in Wisconsin, we owe it to the people of the state to have a true public policy discussion on the issue. That means examining the laws of the 24 other states that have already adopted some version of these protections and working with representatives of the private sector to determine the best fit for Wisconsin.”

Fitzgerald also claimed that recent nationwide polling from Gallup has “shown that an overwhelming majority of Americans are supportive of some version of Right to Work legislation and many of Wisconsin’s businesses have adopted individual versions of these protections for their workers.”

Fitzgerald’s comments are the latest in a series of developments in the right-to-work debate, which Republican leaders insisted on the campaign trail was not a priority. A group with conservative ties announced Monday that it was going to work to advance a bill next session, while a Republican lawmaker in the Assembly also disclosed that he’s working on legislation that will be introduced next session.

Governor Scott Walker has so far remained uncommitted to backing a bill, with his office restating that his “focus is on growing Wisconsin’s economy and creating jobs. Anything that distracts from that is not a priority for him.”

Democratic leaders were quick to seize on Walker’s non-committal comments. Both Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) released statements urging the governor to “put the brakes” on discussions. Barca argued “this would be an extremely polarizing policy at a time when we should be working together to improve Wisconsin’s economy,” while Shilling urged Walker to promise to veto any legislation that makes it to his desk.

Wisconsin lawmaker preparing right-to-work legislation

Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield)

Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield)

A state lawmaker says he plans to introduce a right-to-work bill when the Legislature returns to session next year.

State Representative Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) says he’s working on legislation that would allow workers to choose their union status, by making Wisconsin a right-to-work state. Such a law would prohibit making union membership a condition of employment in the private sector. The Delafield Republican says “all we’re doing is saying is let’s give somebody a choice, when they walk into a business, if they want to be part of the union or not.”

It remains unclear exactly where the proposal would stand in the Legislature. Leadership has indicated they are open to having a discussion on the issue. While Governor Scott Walker has so far said right-to-work is not on his agenda for next year, the Republican governor has not indicated what he would do if the Legislature were to pass a bill and send it to his desk.

The measure will likely face strong opposition from minority Democrats and unions, although Kapenga says he doubts it will rise to the level seen during the contentious debate over Act 10. Protests surrounding Governor Walker’s collective bargaining legislation drew tens-of-thousands of people to the state Capitol for weeks. Union leaders have already come out against the idea of making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, arguing the change would drive down wages and hurt the middle class.

Wisconsin Assembly committee will focus on public assistance reforms (AUDIO)

Speaker Robin Vos (WRN file photo)

Speaker Robin Vos (WRN file photo)

Lawmakers in the state Assembly will be looking at ways to reform Wisconsin’s public assistance programs during the next session.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) says the chamber will have a Public Benefits Reform Committee in the spring, which will focus preventing fraud in social safety net programs. Vos says “it’s really about figuring out a way to right-size our benefits so that we can afford them, but also to make sure that we have the integrity in place so that the public never questions the need to have those benefits.”

AUDIO: Speaker Robin Vos (1:08)

Among the likely proposals is a drug testing requirement for those on public assistance, which Governor Scott Walker and Republicans campaigned on this fall. Critics say the drug testing move is aimed at punishing those on public assistance and will not actually save the state any money. Vos argues it’s about making sure taxpayer dollars are being used as effectively as possible and that those receiving assistance are doing all they can to get back on their feet. Vos says those using drugs will have difficulty finding a job, which makes it likely they will be receiving public assistance longer.

The Speaker released a list of standing committees for the next session on Tuesday. Another new committee will focus on mental health issues. Appointments to the committees have not yet been announced.

Veteran state Senate Democrats named to Wisconsin budget committee

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

State Senate Democrats will be represented on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee by a pair of veteran lawmakers. Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling on Tuesday named Middleton Senator Jon Erpenbach to the panel, along with Milwaukee Senator Lena Taylor.

In all, 12 Republicans and four Democrats will serve on the finance panel, which is tasked with rewriting the state budget that will be presented by Governor Scott Walker early next year that will eventually be voted on by the full Legislature. The panel will hear from agency heads and the public before deciding what changes to recommend late next Spring

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently named six GOP members to the finance committee. Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald must still do the same, along with Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.

Assembly Speaker names Republican members of Wisconsin budget committee

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has named the six Republican who will serve on the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee next session. Among them will be three new faces and three who served on the panel last session.

Marinette Republican state Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette) will take on another session as co-chair of the panel charged with crafting the state budget lawmakers will vote on, while Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) will serve as the Assembly vice-chair. Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) was also reappointed to the committee.

New faces on the committee will include Republican Representatives Michael Schraa of Oshkosh, Amy Loudenbeck of Clinton, and Mary Czaja of Irma.

Speaker Vos is the first legislative leader to announce his choices to serve on JFC next session. Senate Republicans will share control of the panel and will name their own six members. Democrats will have four seats overall, with two coming from each chamber.