By Scott Bauer
MADISON (AP) — Emboldened with their largest majorities in decades, Republicans began the Wisconsin legislative session Tuesday saying they are focused on finding long-term solutions to problems that have long vexed the state such as a projected $1 billion deficit in spending for roads and bridges.
They are also eyeing taking action on several hot-button issues, including breaking up the Department of Natural Resources.
Republicans will control both chambers of the Legislature and hold the governor’s office at the same time there is a Republican president for the first time in 47 years. The Republicans’ 20-13 advantage in the Senate is the biggest since 1971 and their 64-35 control of the Assembly is the biggest since 1957.
Fifteen newly elected lawmakers, along with returning incumbents, gathered with their families Tuesday to be sworn into office amid the typical pomp and pageantry. But the real work will begin in the coming weeks as lawmakers pitch bills and Gov. Scott Walker releases his two-year state budget, likely in early February. Walker is slated to deliver his State of the State speech on Jan. 10.
Assembly Republican leaders said at a news conference that they weren’t in any rush and didn’t know yet what would be the first bill they introduce.
“I promise you we will focus on long-term solutions,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said.
Republicans say they are excited to work with Donald Trump as president, fulfilling promises to repeal President Barack Obama’s federal health care law, give more flexibility to the states over how they spend money on such programs as Medicaid and allow the states to require drug tests for food stamp recipients.
One of the biggest issues facing the state Legislature this year is how to plug a nearly $1 billion projected gap in the Department of Transportation budget. Republicans have shown divisions over how to proceed, with Walker promising to fix it without raising taxes or fees. Other Republicans, including Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, said increasing the gas tax, vehicle registration fees or installing toll roads should be considered.
But Vos cautioned that lawmakers pushing hot-button proposals like splitting the Department of Natural Resources apart and allowing concealed weapons on college campuses need to first sell it to the public.
“We need to actually work harder at some of these subjects to build public support to make sure if we do it we are actually reflecting what Wisconsinites want not 20 people on Facebook who just message everybody acting like they’re some kind of a big posse,” Vos said.