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Assembly Republicans advance fast-tracked proposal to revamp how Wisconsin’s political maps are drawn

The move comes as Republicans field lawsuits over GOP-drawn legislative districts

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A poster showing a map of Wisconsin is displayed in front of state senators at a hearing.
A map created by Republicans in the state Legislature is displayed during a hearing on Oct. 28, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Sen. Jeff Smith sits on the left. Angela Major/WPR

The Republican-controlled state Assembly voted Thursday night to advance a fast-tracked bill that would revamp Wisconsin’s process for drawing political districts.

The move ahead of the 2024 election comes as Republicans fend off two ongoing lawsuits over Wisconsin’s existing legislative maps, which were drawn by GOP legislators.

Those suits were filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which flipped to liberal control when Justice Janet Protasiewicz took office Aug. 1.

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Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester announced the plan in a surprise press conference Tuesday afternoon. Under the bill, staff with Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau would be tasked with drawing proposed political districts. Those plans would be presented to state lawmakers, who would need to approve them along with the governor.

Even if the new redistricting plan clears Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state Senate, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could refuse to sign it. Republicans would need votes from at least two Democrats in the Assembly to override that veto.

In a statement earlier this week, Evers called the proposal a “bogus” attempt to control elections.

“Now, with the possibility that fair maps and nonpartisan redistricting may be coming to Wisconsin whether they like it or not, Republicans are making a last-ditch effort to retain legislative control by having someone Legislature-picked and Legislature-approved draw Wisconsin’s maps,” the governor said.

Under the current system, the party in power in the state Legislature gets to redraw Wisconsin’s political maps every decade following the U.S. Census. The state’s maps are considered to be among the most gerrymandered in the country. The nonpartisan Gerrymandering Project at Princeton University gives Wisconsin’s current maps an “F” for political fairness, finding that they give Republicans a “significant” advantage.

An attendee in the back of the room leans against the arm rest as she listens to state legislators speaking at the front of the room.
Attendees listen as state legislators discuss redistricting during a hearing Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

READ MORE: WPR’s award-winning podcast on redistricting in Wisconsin, “WPR Reports: Mapped Out

Vos has previously opposed proposals that would put a nonpartisan commission in charge of Wisconsin’s redistricting. His about-face, Democrats say, is a partisan attempt to circumvent the rebalanced state Supreme Court before that court has a chance to reject Wisconsin’s current maps.

Vos has suggested lawmakers could pursue impeachment against Protasiewicz, the Supreme Court’s newly-elected liberal justice, if she does not recuse herself from certain cases. That includes the cases over the state’s current political maps, which Protasiewicz called “rigged” on the campaign trail.

“The GOP proposal is disingenuous and an obvious continuation of their efforts to undermine our democracy,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said in a news conference before the Assembly session. “No amount of hand waving will make the public forget that the GOP is considering nullifying their votes and overriding the results of the last election by attempting to impeach Justice Janet Protasiewicz.”

But Vos accused Democrats of “hypocrisy.” Vos said the latest proposal is modeled on a system that’s been in place in Iowa for decades.

“The (Legislative Reference Bureau) are as independent and nonpartisan as human beings possibly can be (and) we asked them to draft it as close to Iowa as possible,” Vos said. “That’s what our Democratic colleagues have said they support, and now they want to figure a way to rejigger it, so that it still gives them some sort of an advantage.”

Evers and other Democrats have in the past supported proposals similar to the one put forth by Vos.

There are some differences between the Republican bill introduced on Tuesday and prior proposals. Unlike the 2023 proposal, a 2021 bill, for instance, would have required lawmakers to have a three-fourths majority before amending maps drawn by the nonpartisan body. In effect, that provision would likely make it impossible for lawmakers to change the maps without broad bipartisan support.

The absence of a provision requiring a three-fourths majority is one reason why the version of the bill introduced Tuesday “doesn’t go far enough,” said Debra Cronmiller, who leads the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

“This bill, if enacted, could result in more of the same extremely gerrymandered Legislative maps that we have now,” Cronmiller said in a statement Wednesday. “This bill needs to require a supermajority (or 3/4 vote) of the Legislature, to ensure one party does not overrule the process.”

Representatives approved an amendment Thursday which says maps can only be approved by a “bipartisan vote” from state lawmakers. That simple majority, however, would still be lower than the three-fourths majority required under previous proposals.

“In some regards, the amendments actually make the bill worse, because to because the ‘bipartisan’ language just requires the party in power to pick off one minority member,” state Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, posted to social media Thursday night. “It’s an invitation to bribery, logrolling, and fraud. There is no safeguard/higher threshold for approval.”

Another amendment removed a much-criticized provision, which would have allowed lawmakers to put forth their own amendments on the third try if they first rejected two versions of maps proposed by the nonpartisan body.

The amended proposal passed mostly along party lines after 11:30 p.m. with LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, joining Republicans in favor.

“Let me offer congratulations to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle — it took you a long time to get here but, amen, it came,” she said. “Black folks and Hispanic folks in the state of Wisconsin have been screwed by Democrats and Republicans equally. So we get to be friends with benefits with everybody.”

Democrats tried and failed on Thursday to send the bill to committee for further input. The bill bypassed the usual opportunities for public comment and a public hearing.

Assembly Republicans advance child care package

Also on Thursday, the Republican-controlled Assembly approved six bills designed to make child care more affordable.

That includes allowing Wisconsinites to contribute up to $10,000 annually to child care savings accounts, which would be exempt from state income tax. It also includes loosening regulations, so that fewer employees can supervise more children in some settings.

The package now heads to the state Senate.

The Wisconsin Early Childhood Association opposes the bills, saying they could hurt quality and won’t provide substantive help.

“In a reality where (the) child care business model has been on life support for decades, and most providers are on razor-thin margins, the proposal before us today offers very little relief,” said state Rep. Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse. “Republicans are mistaken in thinking that deregulation will provide access to affordable child care.”

One the recently-advanced bills would set up an interest-free revolving loan fund, so that child care centers could borrow money for renovations. Leaders of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, which advocates for the interests of day care centers and other providers, have argued that such a fund should offer grants instead of loans.

“Overwhelmingly, providers have stated that they would not use this program, since they would have difficulty repaying any kind of a loan due to lack of profit in this field,” Billings said.

Democrats have tried to pass an amendment, which would have replaced the loans with grants.

Gov. Tony Evers and other Democrats also tried and failed to get Republican lawmakers to allocate more than $300 million in state funding over two years to continue the federal Child Care Counts program. That pandemic-era program gave grants to thousands of Wisconsin child care centers to help cover costs including wages, rent and utilities, but it’s set to expire in early 2024.

But state Rep. Karen Hurd, R-Fall Creek, said propping up Child Care Counts wouldn’t fix an industry with a “broken business model.”

“We have to address the cause,” Hurd said. “We can’t just address a symptom by putting a BAND-AID on it that’s temporary.”

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