The Legislature may attempt to meet in special session over the next several weeks to discuss union contracts.[/media-credit]

Session set to begin today, though state senators could attampt to block debate, vote

The future of controversial state labor contracts may be decided by legislators Wednesday if state senators do not block the attempt to bring the Legislature into special session.

An Assembly committee approved holding an extraordinary session Tuesday to consider multiple state labor contracts, according to Assembly Majority Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna. However, a committee from both chambers of the Legislature must grant approval before the session can be called, and as of Tuesday no Senate committee had moved to make an official decision.

It is unclear whether the Senate intends to call a special session, Nelson said.

If a special session is called specifically to approve worker contracts, it would the be the first in 36 years and only the second in state history, according to the conservative-leaning MacIver Center.

The public employee contracts sparked controversy following demands by Gov.-elect Scott Walker that they be put aside until he takes office Jan. 3. Walker said any contract approvals would interfere with his attempts to deal with the state’s upcoming $150 million budget shortfall.

Jim Doyle, the outgoing governor, negotiated the contracts with multiple unions anyway, the largest of which, the Wisconsin State Employees Union, has already approved the contracts and is calling for the Legislature to approve them.

The contracts apply for work performed from June 2009 through June 2011 and include a 3 percent annual pay decrease as a result of a pay freeze and increased furlough days, according to WSEU.

Walker has said he wants the contracts to include greater worker concessions toward pensions and health care.

A joint committee did hear public testimony on the issue Tuesday, but eventually went into recess. The committee cannot forward the issue to the Legislature until both houses have agreed to come into special session.

At a news conference after the public hearing, several state employees stood arm-in-arm in protest of Walker’s attempts to block the contracts.

Thirteen unions participated in the press conference, who called on the Legislature to meet what the unions say are its obligations, according to a statement from the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Walker apparently remains committed to making more cuts in state workers’ contracts, though.

“Governor-elect Walker remains committed to finding ways to reduce spending while still providing core government services,” Walker spokesperson Cullen Werwie said in a statement.

Republicans take control of both houses of the Legislature Jan. 3, which is currently controlled by Democrats.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Dems, other groups look to make redistricting process more responsive to public

If lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to consider employee contracts, they may also consider a bill designed to make the process of redistricting non-partisan and more responsive to the public.

Several groups are pushing for redistricting reform, including Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, who is working with other special interest groups to ask politicians in the potential special legislative session to create an independent commission overseeing redistricting.

The independent commission would consist of citizens who do not have a direct stake in the results of the district mapping, along with legislature representatives, said Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, in a statement.

The commission and new legislation would be similar to the non-partisan redistricting process Iowa adopted in 1980 and the one California also recently adopted, Heck said.

“It will also provide the citizens of Wisconsin with a much needed boost in confidence,” Heck said in a statement, explaining that citizens will realize state government is doing something in their interest rather than for partisan and moneyed special interests.

Redistricting is the process by which the Legislature redraws district lines after each census. The current method of redistricting gives the majority party the power to draw district lines however they please so long as the districts have roughly the same population.

Politicians often draw district lines around politically favorable populations to make districts less competitive and protect their majority party status, a process widely known as gerrymandering.

Redistricting takes place behind closed doors in Wisconsin making it one of the most partisan and secretive redistricting processes in the nation, he said.

“Almost any way is better than the way we do it now,” Heck said, citing hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted in courtroom challenges to redistricting plans.

Passing legislation now will help clear the way for the next Legislature and Gov.-elect Scott Walker to work on improving the economy and creating jobs, Heck said.

However, partisan redistricting is as old as the country itself, so it is unlikely to change, said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.

A reform in redistricting would take a lot of time because it has to go through committee before its able to be voted on, said Rebekah Sweeney, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, who lost his reelection bid.

She added the primary consideration for the special session would be the state contracts.

Heck disagreed, arguing legislation could be drawn up fairly quickly and passed in the special session.

Democrats are open to the idea of reforming redistricting, said Graeme Zielinksi, spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin

“If the proposals reduce the influence of money and corporate control in elections, we are all for it,” Zielinski said.

However, Heck pointed out it is the Republicans who are in control of redistricting right now, so it makes sense the Democrats would support an effort to make the Republican redistricting process more transparent.

“The Legislature jealously guards redistricting,” Heck said. “I’m hoping that both parties can come together during this holiday season and pass something good for the people of Wisconsin.”