Madison - An effort to change state law that would make it tougher to recall Republican state senators faltered Monday, as one GOP senator said he wouldn’t go along with it and the chamber’s top leader said the measure was not on a fast track.
Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) said he would vote against the plan, leaving Republicans at least one vote short of the majority needed to pass the measure.
The bill by Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) would put into effect new districts for senators next week, instead of November 2012, as current law requires.
The new districts – drawn by Republicans who control both houses of the Legislature – favor the GOP. Republicans approved them this summer but stipulated that they not go into effect for election purposes until next fall.
Lazich’s push on the bill comes as she is also trying to pass separate legislation that would require recall petitions to be notarized before they are submitted. Democrats argued that would do nothing to prevent fraud while creating more hurdles to recall elected officials.
Lazich’s bill on Senate districts would put them into effect for recall elections next week, on Nov. 9. But it would keep Assembly districts in place for the purposes of recall elections until November 2012.
Democrats see keeping the Assembly districts in place as an attempt to ensure special elections aren’t required early next year to fill 10 seats where no incumbent lives under the new districts. Holding special elections would give Democrats a chance at capturing some of those seats before the regular November 2012 elections.
But Kevin Kennedy, director of the Government Accountability Board and the state’s top election official, said Monday that no seats would be vacated even if the new maps were put into place right away for both houses. Court decisions have allowed legislators to retain their seats for the balance of their terms even when they are drawn out of their districts, Kennedy said.
However, having Lazich’s plan in place could create administrative hassles if recall elections were held at the same time in the Senate and Assembly, he said.
Democrats said putting the maps for the two houses into effect at different times made clear that Republicans were simply trying to protect themselves. Lazich said she was trying to clear up confusion because as it now stands lawmakers represent people in the new districts but are subject to recall from their old districts.
States are required to draw new political boundaries every 10 years to account for population shifts detected by the U.S. census. A group of Democrats has challenged Wisconsin’s new maps in federal court, and the case is expected to go to trial early next year.
This summer, six Republican senators and three Democratic senators faced recall elections. Democrats gained two seats in those elections, narrowing the Republican majority to 17-16.
The recalls were spawned because of senators’ stances on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s successful plan to sharply limit collective bargaining for public workers. Democrats plan to launch recall drives against Walker and other Republicans starting next month; Republicans say they may try to recall Democrats as well.
GOP senator opposes bill
Because of their one-vote margin in the Senate, Republicans would need all of their members to vote for Lazich’s bill. But Schultz said Monday he wouldn’t go along with it.
He noted he had taken flak from both sides because he voted against the collective bargaining changes but voted for a state budget that made deep cuts to schools and local governments. He could face a recall attempt from the left or the right, he said.
“I shouldn’t statistically try to change my district,” he said. “I believe the people who voted for me are the ones who should be properly sitting in judgment if a recall comes.”
At a hearing on the bill Monday before the Senate Committee on Transportation and Elections, Lazich argued that “massive amounts of confusion” are in play now. It’s not fair to have voters from an old district recall a senator when voters from the new district would not have a say in the matter, she said.
“This clears up all of that and corrects this inequity and more importantly creates fairness for everyone in Wisconsin,” Lazich said of her bill.
Democrats on the committee disagreed because Lazich’s bill would allow voters to recall someone whom they didn’t have a chance to vote for when that lawmaker last appeared on a ballot.
“What’s designed to make things less confusing actually makes things more confusing,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) said.
The committee, which Lazich chairs, is scheduled to vote on the bill at 10 a.m. Tuesday. If bill is approved by the committee, the Senate would have the option of taking it up Wednesday.
No Senate fast track
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said in a statement Monday the bill “is not on the fast track.”
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie had no comment on the measure, saying the governor would review it if it got to him. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) did not respond to questions on whether Fitzgerald supported it.
Historically, maps of new districts have taken effect for both houses at the same time. Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Nathaniel Persily, a national expert on election law at Columbia University Law School in New York, said they knew of no precedent of putting two sets of maps in place at different times.
The accountability board’s Kennedy wrote a memo two weeks ago saying it was clear from the way GOP lawmakers wrote legislation enacting the new maps that lawmakers now represent the new districts but that any recalls before November 2012 would be conducted in the old districts.
The six member accountability board will review Kennedy’s interpretation of the law on Nov. 9.
The bill requiring notarized petitions would apply to recall petitions but not nomination petitions candidates must circulate to get on the ballot. Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said it was designed to make it harder to recall Walker.
“What they’re doing today is little more than legalized cheating,” he said in a conference call with reporters.
He said Democrats would be undeterred by the legislation, and that hundreds of notaries had volunteered over the weekend to assist with the recall petitions.