Goofy Wisconsin Assembly session had it all

MADISON (AP) -- It's said nothing good ever happens after midnight. Or maybe it's 10 p.m. Or 2 a.m. No matter. When it comes to the Wisconsin Assembly, whenever it gets dark outside things tend to get goofy. Throw in the mix of it being the last ...

MADISON (AP) -- It's said nothing good ever happens after midnight.

Or maybe it's 10 p.m.

Or 2 a.m.

No matter.

When it comes to the Wisconsin Assembly, whenever it gets dark outside things tend to get goofy. Throw in the mix of it being the last day lawmakers are scheduled to be together for the year, and it can get downright surreal.


Case in point: the marathon session that began shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon and went nonstop until about 2:15 a.m. Friday morning.

The session had it all: a lot of debate over major policy initiatives that will affect nearly every person in the state, bitter partisan fights, one upsetting Twitter message, a reference to Johnny Cash, a wee bit of drama, a couple temper tantrums and a dash of bipartisanship

This week's overnight drama didn't come close to the Shakespearean drama that was the Act 10 debate from 2011, when the Assembly stayed in session for 62 hours debating Gov. Scott Walker's proposal effectively ending collective bargaining for public workers.

But there were weighty moments. The Republican-controlled Assembly, on mostly party line votes, approved proposals to require photo identification at the polls, restrict in-person absentee voting hours, limit public access to a proposed iron ore mine site, and change the 124-year-old method of choosing the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Wisconsin isn't the only legislature that sometimes works past midnight, but the frequency with which it happens here has been a problem -- one that increased over the past two years as Walker and majority Republicans pressed their agenda and minority Democrats resisted. The two parties actually struck a deal earlier this year to reduce the problem, by agreeing ahead of time how long to spend on each measure up for discussion.

They did that Thursday, agreeing to get all the business done by 2 a.m.

A long day, sure, but when word of a deal spread that would remove one of the more contentious issues from the agenda -- the creation of an anti-abortion "Choose Life" license plate -- they backed that up to midnight.

But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.


Maybe it was when Democrats tried to force Republicans to vote on a resolution honoring the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. Or maybe it was when Democrats tried to adjourn early, before the session was over. Or, as the Republican majority leader said, maybe it was the Twitter message sent by a Democrat merely suggesting that the license plate bill wouldn't be debated.

Whatever it was, the deal on the license plate bill evaporated and tempers ran high.

"Robin Vos, are you still in the room anywhere or where are you?" asked Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick, breaking protocol in the Assembly by referring to a lawmaker by their name instead of their district number.

"Gentleman will refrain from using members' names," chided the presiding officer, Republican Rep. Tyler August.

"No, you know why I'm not going to refrain?" Zepnick shot back.

"You will refrain," August retorted.

"Because you guys are breaking your word. So I'm going to ask Robin Vos, I'm going to ask Bill Kramer," Zepnick said as August banged his gavel. "I'm going to ask whoever I damn please to stand up and explain your behavior to the public of the state of Wisconsin or get out of the way and let someone else do the job."

August then shut off Zepnick's microphone.


Exchanges like that aren't unusual in the Assembly, especially when lawmakers go deep into the night.

Take the infamous speech Democratic Rep. Gary Sherman delivered at 4 a.m. in 2008.

"This is unprofessional. This is stupid. We have no business to be here," Sherman yelled. "There's people in this room with cancer. There's people in this room with heart disease. A third of the room has high blood pressure. There's elderly people. There's pregnant people. What the hell are we doing?"

Sherman left the Legislature in 2010 when Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle appointed him an appeals court judge.

Moments like that are why Vos, the speaker, made it a goal when he took over the post this year to work with Democrats on ways to avoid going deep into the night. Up until Thursday night, the Assembly had stuck to the deal to get out at a reasonable hour.

But that evaporated in the wee hours Friday morning, amid the fog of the lost deal on the license plate bill, hurt feelings and overall confusion.

As Democratic Rep. Gary Hebl so aptly put it at 12:37 a.m.: "We're not thinking with a full head of steam."

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