BURLINGTON -- Wisconsin Democrats see an opportunity in 2018 to regain seats in the state Legislature because of the unfavorable poll numbers of Republicans in Washington, D.C., but the top Assembly Republican says voters should not judge his members by what's going on in Congress.
"If you’re looking at a legislature that can get things done, forget about Washington, look right here in Wisconsin," Speaker Robin Vos said during an interview at Fred's Burgers in Burlington on Thursday, December 28th.
This year, Wisconsin Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker approved the largest tax break in state history for Foxconn Technology Group. The deal has soared to $4 billion in incentives from taxpayers and has lukewarm support from the public. GOP lawmakers also approved a state budget that includes additional funding for K-12 schools, though passage of the spending deal came more than two months late.
Democrats complain that the GOP has misplaced its priorities over its seven years in control of the state Capitol.
"There are so many problems and issues that we need to focus on, and the Republican majority has chosen not to focus on those issues," said state Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee. Bowen is the vice chairman of the state Democratic party.
With the Foxconn deal likely to be a campaign issue across the state in 2018, Vos blamed Democrats for creating division over the deal across the state.
"If it was a Democrat in the governor's office, they would be celebrating literally and leading a parade, but here we have people playing politics with the process, which is why I think some of the public criticism is out there," Vos said.
Bowen said the money approved for Foxconn should've gone to Wisconsin-based companies, not a Taiwanese one.
"The governor and the Republican majority have agreed that investing in these outside sources and praying that they create these jobs is the strategy they want to go with," Bowen said.
Bowen said he expects his party to seize on the low poll numbers of President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress to pick up a "substantial" number of seats in the state Legislature.
"People are rejecting (the GOP's) agenda, and I expect that to be rejected here in Wisconsin," Bowen said.
Vos didn't guarantee that Republicans would maintain the same historically large majorities they now enjoy, but said he's confident that the GOP would remain in control of Madison.
"If you look at 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016, every time the Democrats said, 'Geez, once the people see what happens when Republicans are in control, they’re gonna turn them off like a light switch,' obviously the reverse is true," Vos said. "Every time we’ve gone to election, we’ve picked up more seats."
Walker's State of the State address is scheduled for January 24th, but GOP leaders have not said how many other days the Legislature will be in session.
The to-do list will be light compared to 2017, when lawmakers grappled with the Foxconn deal and the state budget. Vos has said he doesn't expect a bill allowing people to carry a concealed gun without a license to pass. He also doesn't expect lawmakers to resolve a disagreement over so-called "dark stores" that has major retailers and Wisconsin cities at odds.
Dispute over watchdog agencies
Vos also said the administrators of the state's Elections and Ethics commissions should resign before a possible Senate vote in January to force them out of their jobs.
Republicans say Michael Haas and Brian Bell should be removed from their watchdog roles because they worked at the old Government Accountability Board. A state Department of Justice report in December accused GAB staff of "weaponizing" themselves against Republicans during a John Doe investigation of Walker's 2012 campaign.
Vos questioned whether Haas and Bell could be trusted not to throw future elections.
"Right now, I think that Republicans worry that the individuals that are involved are going to try to tip the scale when the time comes up," Vos said, "and that’s my fear."
Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen defended Haas and ripped Vos's comments as the "ugliest kind of personal attack."
"(Haas) has conducted the 2016 election and a recount without incident, without any accusation of a bias. In my America, when someone is competent and does their job, they get a raise or promotion," Thomsen said during a telephone interview. "Mr. Vos’s attempt to undermine the integrity of Wisconsin elections is repugnant to Wisconsin’s reputation of holding fair elections."
The Elections and Ethics commissions have both held public votes of support for their respective administrators.
Republicans created the commissions, which have equal numbers of Republican and Democratic commissioners, when they disbanded the Government Accountability Board in 2016.