The Senate briefly descended into chaos today after majority Republicans abruptly cut off debate on overriding a veto of grants for hospitals in northwestern Wisconsin and shut down today’s floor period over protests from Dems so a GOP member could catch a flight.

Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, afterward knocked the move as the “last gasp of a gerrymandered majority.”

The Senate plowed through eight veto override votes largely without incident. Republican leaders then rejected a move by Dems to bring five Assembly bills to the floor for votes, including one that would allow the processing of absentee ballots the day before an election.

After moving back to the overrides, state Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona, ripped Dem Gov. Tony Evers for his veto of the hospital bill. Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, quickly called for a vote, cutting off the debate and denying Dems the opportunity to speak on the issue.

Dems repeatedly protested the move with Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, at one point declaring “This is bullshit.”

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, protested as Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, moved forward with the roll call. 

Kapenga repeatedly slammed the gavel as he told Smith the Dem was out of order only for the lawmaker to fire back “I don’t care!” 

Carpenter first confronted LeMahieu as the vote continued. When LeMahieu called for Kapenga’s attention, Carpenter then went to the dais to accuse the Senate president of breaking the chamber’s rules.

After the vote, LeMahieu motioned to adjourn, which Kapenga granted despite several Dems yelling their objections. Carpenter then flung papers that were in his hand in LeMahieu’s direction. 

SB 1014 sought to direct the Department of Health Services to award $15 million in grants to health systems that commit to providing hospital emergency department services in Chippewa or Eau Claire counties, where there have been hospital closures. A separate bill put the money aside in the Joint Finance Committee’s supplemental appropriation for DHS to seek before awarding the grants. 

Evers wrote in his veto message his rejection of SB 1014 and the changes he made to the funding bill made the money more widely available in the Chippewa Valley region.

The Senate voted along party lines 22-9 to override the veto, sending the issue to the Assembly.

In a hastily called news conference after the floor period, Hesselbein called it “shameful and a sham” that Republicans cut off the debate and questioned why they refused to take up the Assembly bills that Dems sought to bring to the floor. They included making it a class C felony for a health care provider to have sex with a client and reducing the eligibility threshold to claim the veterans and surviving spouses property tax credit.

Hesselbein said all five passed the Assembly with bipartisan support.

“Honestly, this is truly an act of desperation by the Republicans in the state of Wisconsin,” she said. “This is their last gasp of a gerrymandered majority. They know it, we know it, and that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.”

She added later, “We’ll be seeing them in November.”

Hesselbein said LeMahieu told her the debate was ended so a member could make a prior commitment.

LeMahieu told WisPolitics in an interview after the floor period that Sen. John Jagler, R-Watertown, had to leave to make a flight.

Jagler’s office didn’t immediately respond to a call from WisPolitics.

“Things were sort of going off the rails anyway, so we thought it was appropriate to end session,” LeMahieu said.

LeMahieu said the behavior of some Dems on the floor was inappropriate, including Carpenter confronting Kapenga at the dais. He also said Dems were to blame for the debate being cut off, because members such as LaTonya Johnson and Chris Larson, both Milwaukee Dems, chose to waste time with superfluous comments rather than focusing on the bills before the chamber.

“We had time for appropriate debate. But we ran out of time,” LeMahieu said.

Senate Republicans also voted today to override another eight Evers vetoes that nixed legislation related to voting, PFAS and self-defense.

But the effort faces a hurdle in the Assembly, where Republicans lack the supermajority needed to complete the override without Dem support.

LeMahieu told WisPolitics he doesn’t know if the Assembly will vote on the overrides. With a 64-35 majority, Republicans would need all GOP votes and at least two Dem members to complete the override. The last time the Legislature successfully reversed a gubernatorial veto of any kind was 1985.

The most high-profile of the bills was the PFAS legislation, which would provide the framework for spending $125 million that was set aside in the state budget to address “forever chemicals.” The guv and GOP lawmakers have been at odds over a provision for so-called “innocent landowners” who didn’t cause the contamination on their property. Evers has said the language would allow bad actors to escape responsibility, while Republicans have rejected that interpretation.

Today’s debate rehashed the back-and-forth between the two sides in recent months.

Hesselbein argued the Joint Finance Committee doesn’t need the trailer bill before releasing the $125 million, arguing the DNR needs the funds for the needed cleanup work.

“There is only one reason to sit on those dollars, and that is polluter protection,” she said.

But GOP Sen. Eric Wimberger, a member of the Finance Committee, countered that providing the agency the money without guardrails would create a “DNR slush fund to bludgeon the innocent.”

“Current law does not care how PFAS got onto your property, only that it exists on your property,” Wimberger said.

All but two of the veto overrides were approved 22-9 along party lines with Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, absent.

The other vetoes included:

*SB 98, which sought to require the Department of Transportation to include the words “Not valid for voting purposes” or another readily recognizable indication on the drivers licenses or ID cards of those who are in the country legally, but aren’t U.S. citizens.

Evers wrote in his veto message he objected to “potentially causing certain individuals to be treated unfairly or perpetuating false narratives about our elections.”

State Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, said local clerks and others in charge of the election process have called for the change. He charged people are handing out flyers at the southern border encouraging people to vote for Dem President Joe Biden and the measure was needed for the security of Wisconsin elections.

“We need to take measures to prevent non-citizens from voting,” Knodl said.

Dem state Sen. Tim Carpenter, whose district includes the highest concentration of Hispanics of any Senate seat in the state, called Knodl’s claim “bull” and accused Republicans of attacking his constituents and trying to drive them underground.

“People are so schizophrenic and paranoid about elections that they’re willing to do anything to people,” the Milwaukee Dem said.

*SB 139, which sought to direct the Department of Natural Resources to establish a statewide wolf population goal as part of its management plan.

State Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, said the state’s gray wolf population has decimated the deer population in northern Wisconsin and threatens the safety of her constituents. She accused Evers of failing the state’s sportsmen and her constituents for his refusal to recognize the problem in her district.

“You’re just carrying the water for a failed leadership. It’s failed,” Felzkowski told her Dem colleagues.

But state Sen. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said Republicans’ ire was misplaced because the gray wolf is protected by the Endangered Species Act. He said the federal government has to act before any management plan would have an impact on the wolf population, calling today’s exercise partisan politics.

“But apparently that’s what we’re here to do today, play partisan politics,” he said.

*SB 145, which sought to create a license for nurses allowing those with advanced credentials to work independently of doctors. Evers has twice vetoed the legislation, which would allow advanced practice registered nurses to run their own clinics without being required to enter a collaborative agreement with a physician.

*SB 517, which sought to bar the issuance of judicial complaints and John Doe investigations if a district attorney declines to prosecute someone who raises a self-defense claim to a crime. Current law allows if a DA doesn’t issue a complaint, a judge may conduct a hearing to determine if there’s probable cause to believe that the person committed a crime and, if so, issue a complaint.

Wimberger joined Dems in opposing the override, but didn’t explain his position during the floor debate.

*SB 736, which sought to require the Legislative Audit Bureau to do post-general election audits in communities randomly selected by the Elections Commission.

*SB 917, which would require the Department of Public Instruction to establish a teacher apprenticeship program.

*SB 932, which sought to make a series of changes to the state building program, including the selection of architects and engineers on projects, as well as a new exception to single prime contracting. That process is when the state contracts with a general contractor, who then hires subcontractors.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, joined Dems in opposing the override, but didn’t explain his vote during the debate.

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