Madison, Wisconsin – The gears of government tend to grind slowly. But in Wisconsin lately they are racing at turbocharged speed.
In just the last few weeks, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has signed legislation to require voters to show photo identification cards at the polls and to deregulate elements of the telecommunications industry. And the Republican-dominated Legislature is now in the midst of advancing provisions to expand school vouchers, to allow people to carry concealed weapons, to cut financing for Planned Parenthood and to bar illegal immigrants from paying in-state tuition at Wisconsin’s universities.
Why the urgency? Republicans, who suddenly swept into control of this Capitol in last fall’s elections, face a deadline of sorts. Though the lawmakers insist that their hurry-up offense is just living up to campaign promises, there is a threat looming: They are at risk of losing their newly won majority in the State Senate as early as next month.
New, special elections are expected in as many as nine Senate districts (six of which are now held by Republicans) as part of the largest recall effort against state lawmakers in Wisconsin’s history — an effort that grew out of yet another controversial measure Republicans pushed through this spring, a sharp reduction to collective bargaining rights for public workers.
“There has been not even a pretense of trying to find a bipartisan agreement on important issues,” said Senator Mark Miller, the Democratic leader, who added that some measures were introduced and passed through committees in just a week’s time — a warp-speed timetable for any state government. “It’s the Republican agenda, and that’s it. The only negotiations now are among themselves.”
And so Wisconsin — which garnered national attention earlier this year because of its Republican leaders’ aggressive efforts to cut collective bargaining — is again being watched closely as a testing ground, this time for potential backlash from the Republican sweep to power in statehouses last fall, when they won control over more legislative seats than they have had since 1928. Republicans also gained complete control of more than half a dozen other state Capitols.
Other states that recently came under Republican control — including Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — have not created nearly the stir as Wisconsin. Protesters here have started a new wave of demonstrations this month in the form of a “Walkerville” tent city near the Capitol in Madison, meant to mimic Hoovervilles, the Great Depression shantytowns of homeless people named after President Herbert Hoover.
Republicans in the Legislature here deny that any rush is on to ram through legislation, and say many of their pro-jobs, fiscally conservative measures are simply elements of the state’s next budget, which must be approved by next month.
Yet Republican leaders are clearly worried about what the recall elections may bring. Stephan Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, acknowledged on Monday that Republicans were encouraging “protest candidates” (who he describes as conservative activists) to run as Democrats in the recall contests. The intent is to force Democratic Party challengers to the threatened Republican senators to compete in invented primary elections, and to buy the Republicans more time to make their cases to voters before a general contest.
Whatever the Republicans’ motivation, there is no doubt they are moving quickly.
In only his first weeks in office, Mr. Walker pushed to remake the state’s Department of Commerce into a public-private hybrid, to limit lawsuits against businesses, to give two-year corporate tax breaks to companies that move to Wisconsin and to give tax credits to companies for each job they create.
By February, he announced a “budget repair bill,” which, he said, would help solve a budget shortfall, in part by limiting collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin.
The proposal set off a wave of protest, drawing union supporters to the Capitol by the thousands and spurring the Senate’s 14 Democrats to flee to Illinois to try to prevent a vote.
In the end, the bill passed without the Democrats, who then came home, but soon recall efforts were under way against six Republicans who had supported the bill and three Democrats who had left town. It was a noteworthy feat, requiring more than 140,000 signatures on petitions.
Since Wisconsin began allowing recalls of state-level politicians in 1926, only four such recall elections — which allow a new challenger to oppose an incumbent — have been held. In half, the incumbent won.
On Wednesday, state officials are expected to decide whether all nine elections will indeed take place. (The three Democrats are objecting to the way signatures were obtained on many petitions against them.) Recall elections have already been set for July 12 for the six Republicans.
There is no consensus on the likely outcome of these races in a state known for being split nearly evenly along party lines and also being home to a large group of independent voters.
One reminder of the divide came in April, when a nonpartisan State Supreme Court race became a virtual referendum on the standoff between Republicans and Democrats. David Prosser, an incumbent justice who some view as part of the court’s conservative bloc, won — but by only 7,004 votes of almost 1.5 million cast.
Democratic Party leaders say they could easily win the three Senate seats they would need to gain control of the chamber, now a 19-to-14 partisan split. But Republicans say they expect no such outcome, and believe they may even gain a seat.
Much is at stake. A judge last month blocked Wisconsin’s cuts to collective bargaining from taking effect because she said the Republicans had violated open-meeting laws in their rush to approve them. The State Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue on Monday, but it was uncertain how or how swiftly the court might act.
Control of the Senate also affects the 10-year redrawing of legislative boundaries — a task over which Republicans, under the current alignment, hold significant authority.
Among political experts, a debate has emerged here over whether Republicans should slow their feverish pace and get through the recall elections or push as fast as possible with their agenda while they can.
For now, there is no sign of a slowing — and there is even talk that if the State Supreme Court does not move rapidly on the collective bargaining question, a new vote might be needed on the issue.
“You want to make sure there aren’t things undone,” said Senator Scott L. Fitzgerald, the Republican leader, who called the recall elections a battle of the two bases — firm Republican voters against firm Democrats. “If some major issue hasn’t been taken care of, voters wouldn’t be as motivated.”