Milwaukee Bucks Historic Protest Lets the World Know: The Wisconsin State Legislature’s “Months of Inaction” is Beyond Unacceptable

Robin Vos and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature haven't passed any bill for 133 days and counting, and they completely refuse to address law enforcement reform.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Milwaukee Bucks players George Hill and Sterling Brown read a statement after the team’s historic decision not to play a playoff game, making a point to call for action from the Wisconsin State Legislature. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Bucks.

Thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks, the world now knows about the biggest problem in state politics: the months of inaction at the Wisconsin State Legislature. 

As of Aug. 26, the day the Bucks boldly chose not to take the court in Game 5 of their first round playoff series, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature had not passed a single bill in 133 days. That’s a 133-day stretch that includes a deadly pandemic that’s now claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Wisconsinites, an economic crisis that’s left hundreds of thousands in the state jobless, and the largest protest movement in American history. In the state’s largest, most diverse city where the Bucks play their home games, there have now been 90 consecutive days of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and for racial justice.

None of that has moved the leaders of the State Legislature to act. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and the Wisconsin Republicans who run the deeply gerrymandered governing body have completely abdicated their responsibilities at a time of genuine crisis. 

It has been revolting to see this inaction play out over and over again as it has these last few months.

The Wisconsin State Legislature, when not in regular session, is under no legal obligation to act. Because of the way state law is structured, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau, the Legislature is required to meet annually, and statutes require the session schedule to include “at least one meeting in January of each year,” but beyond that, leadership sets the schedule. 

Since April 15, the Wisconsin State Legislature has not passed a single bill. 

On Sunday in Kenosha, the world stopped, and Wisconsin was in crisis once again. A Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times in front of his children. The horrifying video of the grotesque, unjust police shooting was shared on social media, and the eyes of the world turned to Wisconsin. It was abundantly clear that immediate action was needed from those in power. 

While there is no requirement for the Legislature to act in moments of crisis, there is a mechanism for them to do so. The Legislature can be compelled to act if the governor calls a “Special Session” or if legislative leadership calls an “Extraordinary Session.” Even still, that doesn’t necessarily mean a bill will be passed or signed into law. The Legislature, for example, can gavel in and gavel out of the governor’s Special Session in mere seconds, as they did last fall when Evers called a Special Session on gun violence prevention

So, while the governor has called for an Aug. 31 Special Session of the Legislature on “policing accountability and transparency” in the wake of the shooting, Republican leadership still has no plans to pass — or even discuss — any bills. 

The expectation, as it long has been on the issue of law enforcement reform (as reported here, months ago), is that the Legislature would gavel in and gavel out of the session without action (or even words) of any kind, just as they did last fall.  

Action and words finally both finally arrived this week — not from the state’s lawmakers, but from its professional basketball team. 

The Milwaukee Bucks sent a courageous message by refusing to take the court on this Wednesday afternoon, and the world now knows how deeply our leaders are failing Wisconsin. 

From the team’s statement, read by George Hill:

"We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers to be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”

It’s a powerful statement the players in that locker room made, and it brings a long-overdue spotlight to what’s been simmering on the back burner as the biggest problem in Wisconsin state politics. 

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, as I’ve written here at The Recombobulation Area (and incessantly on Twitter), the Wisconsin State Legislature’s failure to act is a seismic issue for the state of Wisconsin at this moment of converging crises. 

Compounding the matter, on the issue of law enforcement reform, is that there are bills that have been ignored by Republican leadership for three years

State Senator LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee and now-former state representative Chris Taylor of Madison were among those who introduced a use-of-force package of legislation in 2017. Taylor told The Recombobulation Area in an interview in early June that this package was crafted over a long period of time in response to the police shootings of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee in 2014 and Tony Robinson in Madison in 2015. Now, in 2020, Johnson called the legislation a “lower-hanging piece of fruit, and something that everybody should be able to agree with.”

After the police murder of George Floyd, on June 2, Gov. Evers called on the Legislature all to take up one of those bills, Assembly Bill 1012, but that call was not heeded by the Republican majority. 

Republican State Senator Van Wanggaard, the chair of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety (and a former police officer), voiced strong opposition to the bill, and promising that “In the coming weeks and months, I hope to have something that all of Wisconsin can support” on law enforcement reform, but has since proposed nothing.

On June 9, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, all Democrats, called on Evers to call a Special Session on justice reform, saying “we have a responsibility to ensure equity and safety for all Wisconsinites.”

The subtext here was that there was no expectation that the Republican leadership would do anything. 

“The Republicans, if it’s not their idea, if they’re not initiating it, then there’s no action,” Johnson told me. “Even if the governor calls a Special Session, they’ll do just like they’ve done every single time he’s called a Special Session — gavel in and gavel out. But nothing is actually being done.”

On Juneteenth, Evers joined Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, the first Black man in the state to hold that position, to renew a call for bipartisanship in addressing law enforcement, and introduced a new package of legislation on policing accountability and transparency reform. 

They stopped short, however, of calling a Special Session, saying instead in a joint statement, “[C]alling another special session where legislative leaders come in and gavel in and gavel out risks us losing this incredible moment in history where we can and should be able to work together to get something accomplished. We should not need a special session when people across our state are demanding we take action.”

In the two months that followed Republican leadership in the Wisconsin State Legislature did nothing. They haven’t even held public hearings on the bills, much less discussed them in a legislative session.

As it stands, they have not met in session to pass a single piece of legislation since April 15. The only action taken in the legislature was from the rules committee, which in late June mandated that tenants pay late fees on rent, and chose not to ban conversion therapy. That same committee in May sided with anti-vaxxers, blocking new vaccination requirements for school children

Legislative leaders Vos and Fitzgerald also sued to wrestle control of the state’s pandemic response away from the governor and health secretary. With the help of the conservative-majority State Supreme Court, they won that case. In the 105 days -- 105 days!!! -- since, they’ve taken no statewide action to respond to covid-19. There is literally no legislative plan to combat the virus in the state of Wisconsin.

Today, the morning after a 17-year-old white supremecist militia member Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters, killing two, in Kenosha, Vos went on conservative talk radio to blame his political opponent for their deaths, saying “People are literally dead because folks have had to take to themselves to try to protect their own property."

Johnson and Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee likened Vos’ comments to President Trump calling white supremecists “very fine people.” This is the type of person we’re dealing with here.

If there is any single individual who is chiefly responsible for the months of inaction at the Wisconsin State Legislature, it is Robin Vos. 

Nearly as responsible is Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is currently running for the open seat in Wisconsin’s 5th congressional district in Milwaukee’s suburbs, but he’s been completely silent this week. (Fitzgerald’s opponent is Tom Palzewicz, by the way.)

Less than 24 hours after Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake, Gov. Tony Evers finally called a Special Session of the Legislature on matters of “policing accountability and transparency.” 

Vos, true to form, threw a tantrum, emphasizing instead a “task force” he’d haphazardly announced, signalling that he’d do what we’re all expecting, and refuse to act in the governor’s Special Session. Gavel in, gavel out.

If Robin Vos doesn’t show up on Monday to discuss this legislation, if he gavels in and gavels out of this Special Session with the world watching, if he once again chooses the path of inaction, he needs to resign. Immediately. 

The Milwaukee Bucks have been leaders, on and off the court, championing the need for real change in this community that so desperately needs it. They are leading again in this moment. They have shown they are willing to risk their pursuit of the franchise’s first championship since 1971 to stand up for justice for Jacob Blake and to bring attention to the months of inaction at the Wisconsin State Legislature, and call for long-overdue reform. 

We need to follow their lead and do our part to hold the powerful accountable and make sure this moment doesn’t pass us by. 

We need to see justice for Jacob Blake. We need to see justice for the victims of Kyle Rittenhouse’s deadly rampage. We need to see systemic change in Wisconsin now. We need to affirm that Black Lives Matter.

We need the Wisconsin State Legislature to do its job and get to work already. We’ve waited long enough. We’re not waiting anymore. 

This can be the moment that finally changes the narrative in Wisconsin.

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record.

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