Madness in Madison – Stop The Presses!

By YeOldeScribe ~ March 18th, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

The budget crisis in Madison, Wisconsin, took an interesting (but expected) turn today when a Dane County judge issued a temporary restraining order be placed on the so-called Budget Repair Bill because there was evidence that the bill’s passage violated Wisconsin law. Today, we’ll take a look at why the decision was made, what the decision means, and what it doesn’t mean.

First off, this decision doesn’t come as a surprise to to The judge ruled that the way in which the bill was passed violates the state’s open meetings law, which states that (under Wisconsin State Statute, 19.84 (3)), “ Public notice of every meeting of a governmental body shall be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of such meeting unless for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting.” The meeting for the Special Conference Committee was announced at 4:15 p.m. and held at 6 p.m. on March 9th. So even if the Republicans argued that the bill was an emergency (which is wasn’t, and which they’re not arguing), it still didn’t provide 2 hours notice. Ironically, the Attorney General for Wisconsin had sent out a memo a while back reminding legislators of these rules, and the memo stated that any action that was taken by a meeting that was found to be in violation of the Open Meetings Laws would be declared invalid. Also ironically, the state chose to take the approach of “the Special Conference Committee wasn’t a governmental body” as their defense. We just find it ironic that the Republicans are so open to admit that what happened at that meeting was the opposite of what organized government is supposed to look like – and that they’re using that as a legal defense as to why the law is constitutional. Smooth, guys. Real smooth.

So what does Judge Maryann Sumi’s ruling mean? It means that, for now, the bill cannot take effect. While Wis. Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill last Friday, the bill doesn’t go into effect until Secretary of State Doug La Follette “publishes” the law. La Follette, who happens to be a Democrat, has 10 days to publish a bill once it’s signed by the governor – and he said that he wasn’t going to publish it until that 10th day. Sumi’s ruling says that La Follette can’t publish the bill until a formal hearing is held. We imagine that this news wasn’t upsetting to the Secretary of State at all. So for now, the Budget Repair Bill remains a bill and not a law – because even though Walker signed it, it wasn’t published, so it wasn’t official, allowing for the judiciary to grant the emergency restraining order. There are actually two lawsuits against the bill – the first which was decided today was filed by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. The second was filed by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who alleges that the amended Budget Repair Bill still needed a quorum of 20 members to pass since it still contained fiscal components. Falk’s case was not granted emergency status by the courts, so her hearing on the bill will take place April 14th. Ozanne’s case against the bill will be heard starting March 29th.

What today’s decision doesn’t mean is arguably more important. Walker’s Budget Repair Bill is still virtually guaranteed to pass in three ways: First, the lawsuits can be dismissed, and the bill goes into effect. Second, if the lawsuits are successful, all that’s required for the bills to pass again is 24 hours notice, and then the bills become law because Democrats are powerless to stop the Republican-controlled legislature (and they’ve also promised not to leave the state again). Third, the Republicans don’t even have to wait for the resolution of the court cases to take action – if the Senate was to post 24 hours notice that a vote would be taken on the un-amended version of the Budget Repair Bill (which already passed the Assembly), a vote could be had on that bill now since the chamber has quorum with the renegade Democrats back in the state. Since the Dem’s can’t stop that from happening, the bill would be passed (without amendments), and the outcome of the court’s decision would be moot in a legislative sense. Make no mistake about it, today’s decision doesn’t overturn the Budget Repair Bill or declare the bill itself to be in violation of the law – all it says is that the way in which the bill was passed was in violation of the law.

So who wins from today’s decision? It’s clearly not the Republicans, but we also believe the Democrats don’t really get a win here either, because the bill will still become law – eventually. The only winner here is democracy. The judge’s ruling says that legislators have to follow their own rules, and that the public has a right to know when huge decisions that will affect the lives of tens of thousands of workers directly (not to mention the residual impacts this bill has had) are to be discussed. It’s a win for the constitution, which sets up these checks and balances so that one branch (or two, in this case) can’t take over the state and turn it into a dictatorship. It’s a win for Wisconsin, founded on ideals and principles like open meetings and public involvement in political affairs. And it’s a win for progressives, for all the reasons mentioned above.

Also, we’ll call this a win for Rep. Peter Barcha, because we still feel bad for what happened to him (and democracy) in that Special Conference Committee.

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1 Response to Madness in Madison – Stop The Presses!

  1. wendy

    The most frightening part of this has ALWAYS been the thwarting of the proper procedures of our governmental process. I despise Walker’s political agenda, but if his results had been obtained properly and then we had been able to challenge properly I would have been more able to accept the result. Polls and party statements are not accurate readings of the will of the people. The slow steady grind of our governmental process with all its checks and balances – that is how the will of the people is measured and carried out.


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