Democrats are accusing their Republican counterparts at the Capitol of lack of transparency after last week’s State Senate and Assembly Organization Committee used paper ballots to vote on hiring a new law firm for the ongoing legal disputes over legislative redistricting instead of holding a committee meeting.
The committee passed the motion a few days after the plaintiffs subpoenaed Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and other legislators to gain access to the computers on which legislators drew the district maps.
Whether or not legislators should be allowed to draw district lines has been hotly contested, and the legal case has cost taxpayers $1.9 million so far. Last week, Republican Assembly leaders hired a new law firm, Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek, and the Legislature voted by paper ballots to come to this decision.
According to Bill Lueders, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president, the Legislature allows the use of paper ballots in place of holding open meetings and debates. Rather than gathering together, members submit their individual votes via email on an issue.
Lueders said this practice has been on-going in the Senate for a while, and the Assembly Organization Committee, a committee in charge of governing the house’s affairs, recently adopted it.
The Legislature uses the paper ballot method because it is more convenient, making decision-making easier and faster without the constraints of a physical meeting, Lueders said
“Most issues decided by paper ballots are pretty mundane,” Lueders said, noting issues of less public concern can be resolved more easily with this process.
Still, Lueders said situations of public importance should be heard in a transparent committee meeting. Though he recognized he cannot judge political players’ motivation, Lueders said it was unfortunate the public was not engaged in this particular conversation regarding the spending of taxpayer dollars on attorney fees.
Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, said he was against the adoption of paper ballots in the Assembly. Though the Senate has been using them, Jorgensen reinforced the Assembly’s distinction as a separate entity.
“The other side’s been saying that we should get in line with what the Senate does,” Jorgensen, an Assembly Organization Committee member, said. “We’re not the Senate. They should have gotten in line with us.”
Jorgensen said the Assembly Organization Committee tried to make an amendment capping the attorney fee for this dispute at $50,000 as a compromise, rather than allowing the attorneys an open-ended sum of money.
This motion was unsuccessful and the Legislature was allowed to proceed with hiring attorneys for the redistricting case.
Jorgensen said he recognized some issues can be handled with paper ballots, but specified this issue is a matter of public importance and warrants a debate. He said the rule change of allowing paper ballots in the Assembly removes any possibility for debate or transparency.
“What I’m concerned about in Legislature is that this is going to become a bad habit of closing ourselves off to the public,” Jorgensen said.
He also said he was apprehensive writing blank checks will become a new trend.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Vos were unavailable for comment. However, Kit Beyer, Vos’s spokesperson, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the Assembly Organization Committee is the only group in the Assembly allowed to use paper ballot voting to increase decision-making efficiency.