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Politics & Government

Republicans Have High Hopes For New State Legislative Session

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Justin Kern
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Monday is Inauguration Day in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker will be sworn-in to a second term, while 99 members of the state Assembly and 33 Senators will also take the oath of office.

Republicans again control both chambers. As is typical of the first year of the session, lawmakers will spend the next six months working on the state budget. Governor Walker is expected to deliver his plan in coming weeks. JR Ross is editor of the online political magazine, wispolitics.com. He predicts the governor will lay out bold initiatives, particularly in education.

“He wants to do things like cut the size of government, things like the school accountability bill, which would give letter grades to schools,” Ross says.

Ross thinks many people in the state will be looking at the governor’s actions this year through a different filter. That’s because Walker has said he’s seriously considering a run for the White House in 2016.

“He’s trying to do what’s best for the state and what also might help him run for president. That’s in the wings of everything he does right now. People are going to look through that lens of, this is a guy who wants to set an agenda and help build on his record to help springboard him toward possibly campaigning in places like Iowa,” Ross says.

One lawmaker who wants to help the governor accomplish his agenda is Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield. He serves on the Joint Finance committee. Kooyenga says the GOP wants to use the state budget to help middle class families.

“We’re going to continue to focus on lowering property taxes. Gov. Walker wants property taxes in 2018 to be lower than they were in 2010,” Kooyenga says.

Kooyenga says even though the budget will consume much of the first half of the year, lawmakers will have time to consider a few divisive measures. They include right-to-work legislation. It would forbid unions and employers from forcing private sector workers to pay dues. Kooyenga says he supports leaders’ efforts to quickly bring a bill to the floor.

“If you look at right-to-work, the states that are right-to-work states have significantly more growth than states that do not have right to work. Robin Vos says if it passes the senate, we’ll take it up so I think it’s really on the senate right now as to what they’re going to do,” Kooyenga says.

Democrats and labor unions are expected to oppose the measure. Assemblyman Mandela Barnes of Milwaukee predicts the discussion over right-to-work could reach fever pitch levels similar to those Gov. Walker’s Act 10 sparked in 2011. Thousands of people demonstrated for weeks on end, when he dismantled most public sector unions. Barnes says right-to-work would weaken those in the private sector.

“Me personally, I don’t call it the right-to-work. In casual conversations with colleagues, we call it the right-to-jerk. It’s giving a lot of these companies the opportunity to jerk around the working man and woman in this state,” Barnes says.

Barnes says Democrats plan to oppose other GOP-sponsored bills, reportedly in the works. Those include one that would overhaul the Government Accountability Board – the agency that oversees elections; and a measure that would drug test people applying for government benefits. Yet Barnes foresees Democrats and Republicans finding common ground on plans to reform the criminal justice system.

“I think there’s room for a lot of work. There’s been a lot of healthy conversation on both sides in regards to criminal justice reforms,” Barnes says.

Late last year, legislative leaders created a couple bipartisan panels. One is charged with recommending ways Wisconsin could reduce its black male incarceration rate – it’s the highest in the nation. A focus has been on offering alternatives for non-violent crimes. The panel is expected to issue recommendations later in 2015.