Wis. Senate Passes Wetlands Deregulation in Midnight Session

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R – Juneau) adjourned the Senate yesterday afternoon only to reconvene a minute past midnight this morning in order to pass a controversial wetlands deregulation bill at the earliest possible opportunity. During the afternoon session, Senator Chris Larson (D – Milwaukee) objected to a third reading of the bill, which meant that the body couldn’t vote on it until the next scheduled business day.

The Senate did take up and debate several amendments to the bill in the afternoon. During the debate the bill’s author Neal Kedzie (R – Elkhorn) said he has been trying to get this bill, or some version of it, passed for a dozen years. He said that when Scott Walker came into office thirteen months ago, “the opportunity presented itself to revisit these initiatives.”

A key aspect of the bill creates something called “wetland mitigation banks,” allowing developers to fill in wetlands in one part of the state and mitigate the loss of wetlands elsewhere by purchasing land and creating a new wetland. The new wetland does not have to be in the same watershed as the one being filled in. All conservation and most outdoor sports organizations have registered against the bill.

In a public hearing on the bill last month, Kedzie asserted that deregulation was necessary to reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved with developer’s ability to fill in wetlands. Larson shot back at him, “Mr. Chair, I think you’re mispronouncing democracy. This is not bureaucracy, this is democracy.”

Although Kedzie claims that all stakeholders and interest groups were at the table for the crafting of the bill, Democrats pointed out that having a seat at the table is not equivalent to having your concerns met in the legislation. Senator Robert Wirch (D – Pleasant Prairie) said, “the manufacturers and realtors voices were heard on this bill, but not the sportsmen.” Bob Jauch (D – Poplar) added, “This bill places economic development ahead of protecting our resources, and uses mitigation as a means of convenience for developers.”

Senator Dale Schultz (R – Richland Center) who has been held up by Democrats as a potential swing vote on controversial issues came out solidly in favor of the bill. “There are few efforts I have made in legislature that I’ve enjoyed more than working on this bill with the Senator from the 11th (Kedzie).” He also asserted that he has, “made every effort to listen to everyone while writing a bill that would be a little more friendly to job creation.”

At the end of the Senate’s afternoon agenda, Senator Fred Risser (D – Madison) moved to withdraw a bill restoring collective bargaining rights to public workers from committee and put it on the Senate calendar for debate. That infuriated Fitzgerald, who launched into a bizarre tirade about Kathleen Falk and her ties with unions. Falk is a Democrat who has thrown her hat into the race for Governor once Scott Walker is officially recalled. At the end of his rant, Fitzgerald moved to adjourn until 12:01am to vote on the bill. His motion passed on a 17 – 16 party line vote. 

One year into the Walker-Fitzgerald regime, the people of Wisconsin know how to respond to outrageous political moves such as calling a senate floor session for midnight. As soon as it was announced shortly before 5pm, a pajama party was organized through on-line social networks.

About a hundred people showed up, some coming from as far away as Stevens Point, two hours away. One person was arrested for holding a cross in the gallery and allegedly resisting arrest. After a brief disruption of the proceedings by people in the gallery at the beginning of the session, the bill was passed within ten minutes. Only one senator, Chris Larson, stood to speak to the bill.

Democrats attempted more procedural moves to delay the messaging of the bill to the Assembly who are scheduled to take it up during their floor session on Thursday, to no avail.

Scott Fitzgerald abruptly moved to adjourn at about 12:25am. People in the gallery erupted with cries of, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and, "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Scott Fitzgerald has got to go!"

Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.