In divided Wisconsin, the governor and legislative leaders are barely talking

MADISON – Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin can’t agree on much — including why they can’t agree.

Democrats say Republicans spoiled chances for bipartisanship with a lame-duck session that peeled power away from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul even before they were seated.

Republicans say Evers packed so much liberal policy into the state budget he introduced in February that he left no room for compromise.

The roots of the problem date to the election, when Evers edged out two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The next day, Evers received dozens of congratulatory phone calls — including one from Walker — but he didn’t hear from the Republican leaders of the Legislature, who kept firm grips on the state Senate and Assembly.

Instead, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester were busy working on the legislation to clip the new governor’s wings before he took office.


Lou Saldivar, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Now cemented in place as adversaries, the three most powerful people in Wisconsin’s divided government must decide how much money to spend on vital services like schools and transportation.

But they’re barely talking.

Barring a breakthrough in negotiations, the state is on a path to adopt a state budget that won’t include anything new, including the education and health-care proposals that propelled Evers to victory in November.

Vos said the lack of communication is Evers’ fault: the governor won’t sit down with him on a regular basis like Walker did with the two legislative leaders.

“We’ve been consistently trying to figure out a way to get that done but I’m also not going to camp out on his doorstep,” Vos said. “He was on public radio the other day — I thought about calling in.”

But emails from the governor’s office show Evers’ staff this month tried to set up a meeting between the governor and Vos and Fitzgerald. The GOP leaders didn’t immediately take advantage of that opportunity, but have now arranged to meet on Wednesday.

In any case, Evers isn’t concerned about the dynamic.

‘Do we hang out every day? No’

“I think it’s fine,” he said Friday. “I mean, do we hang out every day? No.”

Evers said he has met with more than 100 of the state’s 132 lawmakers since he was inaugurated in January. Republicans downplayed those events as meet-and-greet encounters that didn’t involve substantive talks.

“Do we meet on a daily basis? No,” Evers said. “But we also have something we call staff members that work for us that actually can do some interactions on a daily basis if so needed. So I’m not concerned about the communication we have. As we get further down the line in the budget-making, I’m sure we’ll meet more often.”

Fitzgerald said lawsuits challenging the laws Republican legislators passed to limit Evers’ power are hampering progress.

RELATED: Lame-duck scorecard: Where the cases stand in the fight over GOP laws limiting Wisconsin governor

“I think we’re still trying to figure out who to talk to, how to talk to them, and when to talk to them,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “With the lawsuits and the distractions that have been brought to the process, it’s been difficult to generate any type of relationship with the governor’s office.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling discounted that claim, saying the relationship wasn’t damaged by the lawsuits so much as the laws that sparked the litigation.

“I think my Republican colleagues are befuddled and miffed about how the lame-duck session hangover continues to permeate what happens in this building and what actions are taken,” the La Crosse Democrat said in an interview in her Capitol office.

Vos said it’s important to begin talking now so the two sides can develop trust and get to know how each other…

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