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Gridlock, infighting likely on tap for Wisconsin Legislature (POLL)

By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s new legislative session begins Jan. 7, and Democrats are still seething over a Republican lame-duck session that weakened the powers of the incoming governor, Tony Evers.

With the control of the state Legislature divided for the first time in a decade, there’s fear that partisan gridlock and infighting among Republicans who control the Senate and Assembly may produce few meaningful compromises with Evers.

Here’s a look at the obstacles lawmakers are faced with as they head into the two-year legislative session:

Evers made big promises on the campaign trail, pledging to cut the state’s prison population in half, find a long-term funding plan for roads, expand Medicaid benefits and hand public schools an additional $1.4 billion. But he can’t do anything without the approval of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat, said that, following the GOP-led lame-duck session, “trust isn’t there.”

“It’s fresh, it’s pretty significant and it’s pretty toxic,” Hintz said. “The best-case scenario (going forward) is compromise and the worst case scenario is gridlock.”

Even some Republicans voiced frustration with the lame-duck session.

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“There’s no trust on either side,” Republican state Rep. Joel Kitchens told the Door County Pulse. “This will make me redouble our efforts to work together and get past this. I don’t want this to be my life.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, predicted that the Legislature will write its own budget and ignore what Evers submits. That sets the stage for what is likely to be a protracted battle to pass a two-year spending plan.

Republicans have controlled both legislative chambers since 2011 but have struggled to work together. Most significantly, they couldn’t agree in 2017 on a long-term transportation plan, delaying the adoption of the last state budget before they ultimately agreed to borrow more for roads. During that battle, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos used the word “terrorists” to describe three Republican senators who finally brokered a budget deal.

The Senate will only become more conservative this session, with the election of Andre Jacque, a state representative who clashed with Vos when Jacque pushed hard-line anti-abortion bills. Fitzgerald said Republicans will have to work harder at getting along.

Finding a long-term funding plan for Wisconsin’s roads has for years been difficult for Republicans. Vos insists that the state needs new revenue; a proposal he put forward to raise the gas tax put him at loggerheads with both Walker and Senate Republicans and ultimately led to the delay of the state’s last budget. Walker eventually broke through the impasse by borrowing more money, keeping the debate alive for Evers and the next Legislature. Evers says he’s open to anything, including raising the gas tax.

Evers promised to give schools an additional $1.4 billion in the next state budget. Republicans say that’s unrealistic. That sets up the likelihood that the Legislature will write its own budget, but Evers maintains strong veto power that he can use to bring the plan back closer to what he wants. Those circumstances most likely makes some sort of compromise inevitable.

Evers promised to accept $180 million worth of federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to about 75,000 more poor people. Such a change would require legislative approval. Fitzgerald said it was too soon to rule it out. Vos, though, said in October that such an expansion wouldn’t happen. Evers plans to count on the money in his first state budget, forcing the GOP to find other revenue sources or make cuts if Republican lawmakers won’t accept the money.

Evers wants to all but wipe out a manufacturing-and-agriculture tax credit that Walker and Republicans enacted. Evers’ proposal would save $300 million, which he would use to pay for a reduction in income taxes. Republicans want to keep the credit. Fitzgerald said Senate Republicans are always open to reducing taxes but they won’t raise other ones to do it.

Wisconsin prisons held a record number of adults in 2017 and the population is expected to grow. Assembly Republicans passed a bill in February authorizing $350 million in borrowing to build a new prison but the measure died in the Senate. Evers wants to reduce the population by half. Significant reforms that would reduce the prison population would be a heavy lift for the GOP. Lawmakers did manage to strike a bipartisan deal to overhaul the juvenile justice system last year, kindling hope for compromise.

Evers wants to eliminate the quasi-governmental Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which Walker established in 2011. That’s probably not going to happen; doing away with the agency would require changing statutes and Republicans would never allow it. Indeed, Republicans in the recent lame-duck session prohibited Evers from controlling the agency’s board and prevented him for nine months from replacing the WEDC chief executive, Mark Hogan.

Republicans have been criticized for approving $3 billion worth of state incentives for Foxconn Technology Group’s new flat-screen plant in Mount Pleasant. The incentives are locked in by contract with the Taiwanese electronics giant, but Evers could still bring things to a halt by rescinding the plant’s air-pollution permits.

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