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GOP lawmakers reject Democrats’ call to rein in investigations


GOP lawmakers reject Democrats’ call to rein in investigations

May 05, 2023 | 6:45 am ET
By Erik Gunn
GOP lawmakers reject Democrats’ call to rein in investigations
State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) argues for a Democratic motion at Thursday's meeting of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. (Screenshot | WisEye)

Democrats on the Legislature’s budget committee called on the Republican majority Thursday to subject all investigations launched by their leaders to a vote in both the Senate and the Assembly, citing the “absolute waste of money” spent on the Assembly’s discredited review of the 2020 election.

The Joint Finance Committee’s Republican majority rejected the measure on a 4-12 party-line vote.

Thursday’s meeting was the committee’s second round of votes on the state’s 2023-25 budget. A handful of those votes were unanimous, including one to give the Medical College of Wisconsin $3.5 million a year to support residency training for psychiatrists and behavioral health specialists.

On most provisions, however, GOP-authored proposals passed 12-4 with only Republican votes, while alternatives presented by the Democrats failed 4-12. 

With the committee’s lopsided membership and members of each party voting in lockstep, the budget sessions at least in their early stage are proving to be, as in previous years, primarily about messaging rather than give-and-take in crafting a spending plan. 

The Democrats’ measure “to require a majority vote in each house of the Wisconsin Legislature … for the hiring of investigators for any purpose” came about 20 minutes into the meeting, which lasted less than an hour.

“Tuesday, in our initial debate over this budget, the majority party spent time talking about the stewardship of tax dollars, about spending other people’s money, about … reasonableness and responsibility,” said State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) as he introduced the Democratic motion. 

The Democrats’ proposal “would seek to apply all of that rhetoric and all of those words to the Legislature,” Goyke said. “Because the truth is that, especially in the State Assembly, it’s do as I say not as I do. And there is no better example of an absolute waste of money than the Michael Gableman — I’m going to use air quotes — ‘investigation’ into the 2020 election.”

WisPolitics.com has estimated the cost of the investigation at $2.5 million, Goyke noted.

The motion also called for such investigators to be subject to Wisconsin’s open records and open meetings laws.

“Because not only did we waste two and a half million dollars paying Gableman and his team to do whatever they were doing, we then had to pay additional dollars to a law firm because they didn’t follow the law and didn’t turn over public records when you’re supposed to,” Goyke said. “Stop wasting our money on these political endeavors! Stop violating open meetings and public records laws and paying attorneys’ fees and settlements in court. You came with big bluster on Tuesday, about responsibility and reasonableness — now apply it to yourself and adopt this motion.”

No Republicans spoke against the motion or offered any rebuttal to Goyke’s argument before voting it down.

As originally drafted, the motion also applied to the Legislature’s hiring “outside counsel” in addition to investigators. 

On Tuesday, however, Republicans on the finance committee threw out more than 500 items from the proposed budget Gov. Tony Evers submitted in February — including one provision that related to the ability of legislators to hire lawyers. 

The ejected measure would have repealed a 2018 change in state law that gave  state legislators the ability to hire outside lawyers at unlimited taxpayer expense to represent them in connection with their work as lawmakers, rather than relying on the state Department of Justice.

Subjects that were removed from the budget can’t be reintroduced, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), the finance committee co-chair, told Goyke. “If you wanted to, I guess, modify it to have it be about investigations as opposed to hiring legal counsel, then we could probably continue.” 

Goyke agreed to delete “the words ‘outside counsel,’ and keep it about investigation.” But the measure still failed.

Among the other actions the lawmakers took Thursday: 

  • With only their votes, Republicans added $180,500 to the Board on Aging and Long-Term Care to hire a long-term care ombudsman. The ombudsman program advocates for people in long-term care, investigating complaints and mediating conflicts between providers and clients or their families. Currently, the board’s executive director doubles as the ombudsman, but the Evers administration says federal regulations require the position to be a distinct, full-time employee. 

The 12 GOP lawmakers rejected a Democratic alternative that would have added two other administrative positions to the agency, as Evers has proposed.

  • Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal to add $4.15 million to expand the reach of family resource centers currently operating in 37 counties that work with families to prevent child abuse and neglect. 

Instead, the Republicans added $500,000 for additional grants to the resource centers, and another $500,000 earmarked for expanding a particular parental training program.

  • After rejecting a Democratic proposal to adopt Evers’ $8.8 million budget increase for the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Republicans passed a trimmed down $7.3 million hike, again without Democrats’ votes.

The unanimous vote on the Medical College of Wisconsin residency program came at the meeting’s end.

“As we’ve been out doing our listening sessions, just being in our districts, I think there’s one thing that we’ve heard consistently from our schools, our providers — there’s a lack of psychiatrists in the state of Wisconsin,” said Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma).

Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) noted that the college, based in suburban Milwaukee, has expanded to his own district. Giving the program the state’s support “will be a real good way to help out locally a particular need, taking advantage of an existing program,” he said.