MADISON — After a sweeping lame-duck session curtailing the powers of the next governor and attorney general, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ move toward what he calls a level playing field is not yet complete.
Vos, 50, already one of Wisconsin’s longest-serving Assembly speakers — he’ll tie the record set by Tom Loftus at the end of this upcoming term — is set to preside over an increasingly empowered Legislature craving more resources as it acts to check Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers.
The longtime speaker said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal he’s prepared to supply those resources in the form of increased Republican Assembly staff to help craft an alternative budget in the Capitol’s west wing as Evers takes office in the east.
Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they may draft their own biennial budget, especially if Evers strays far from the GOP agenda by expanding Medicaid or increasing taxes.
Vos wouldn’t specify how many additional staff he plans to hire. But in a response strikingly similar to one he gave last month hinting at the lame-duck session, Vos said adding some GOP staff to deal with administrative rules, budget writing and communications is only fair given the roughly 250 political appointments and 30,000 state employees Evers will have. Assembly Republicans currently have about 200 employees.
“We’re going to look and say, ‘Geez, are there some positions that we should look at and potentially add on?’” he said.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, worries Republican plans to craft their own budget instead of working off of Evers’ is yet another “power grab.”
“It’s clear that Rep. Vos sees himself as the opposition,” Hintz said. “Partisan power is a major priority at the expense of the public and democracy.”
Even if Republicans overlook Evers’ budget, Hintz and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, are holding out hope some of the priorities of both parties will overlap, something Vos is willing to consider.
“I’m going to compromise on things where I can, and I’m going to stand like bedrock on the principles I believe in,” Vos said. “I’m sure (Evers is) going to, too.”
The impending departure of Gov. Scott Walker makes Vos arguably the most powerful Republican in the state Capitol — and chief foil to Evers.
“He certainly has the talent to become the countervailing force to the new governor,” said one of Vos’ predecessors, former Assembly Speaker-turned-lobbyist Scott Jensen.
But Vos said he never wished to be in the position of top Republican, lamenting the fact Walker lost his re-election bid. He said he views his position not in terms of power, but in his ability to influence.
“My style is very collaborative,” Vos said. “I try not to rush into decisions. I have to persuade people.”
Vos said he views his job as preventing Wisconsin from regressing as Walker leaves center stage.
The lame-duck session heightened Vos’ national profile and endeared him to some fellow conservatives. It also made him a bigger-than-ever target for Democrats who contend Vos and GOP lawmakers overreached with the fast-tracked package — eroding democratic norms, defying the will of voters and inviting a future electoral backlash.
“(Evers) has extended an olive branch within a day of victory, and it seemed that Speaker Vos and Senator Fitzgerald snapped that branch in two within a couple of hours,” Shilling said.
Recent Assembly speakers have frequently used the position as a stepping stone to higher office, but Vos downplays any suggestion he could be a gubernatorial contender in 2022. He acknowledged another decade in the position isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but added he doesn’t think that far ahead.
“I’m not like an attention seeker,” Vos said. “I think I have found my niche in the fact most people believe I do a good job as speaker.”
In considering an eventual exit from politics, he said he’d consider whether he’s still intellectually fulfilled and making a difference.
He briefly considered but ultimately passed earlier this year on a run for the U.S. congressional seat being vacated by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. He said gaining congressional influence would take too long, and he doesn’t want to frequent airplanes.
As for the governorship, he said he prefers the intellectual challenge of being speaker.
“I’ve often joked about the fact that when Scott Walker has to make a decision, he looks in the mirror and says, ‘What should we do?’ That’s the power of the executive,” he said. “I have to actually persuade people.”
Even political opponents attest to Vos’ energy, intellect and strategic skill.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, who kindled an unlikely friendship with Vos when they served on the Joint Finance Committee, described Vos as “one of the three smartest leaders that I saw in action” at the state Capitol.
“Robin is very bright, very strategic — often several steps ahead of most everyone else in the room,” Pocan said. “You don’t always find people who are both smart and politically savvy.”
“So that means depending on your perspective, he’s either extra-dangerous or extra-good,” he said.
In addition to his political ascent, those traits have fueled Vos’ considerable private wealth — he runs a popcorn business and a real-estate empire that, as of his most recent disclosure to state ethics officials, included ownership of rental properties worth about $6 million.
Vos caught the political bug in the sixth grade, when his teacher began taking him to GOP events. His autograph book from that time contains the signatures not of athletes or rock stars, but former Rep. Cloyd Porter, who represented the same area from 1972 until 2000.
A Burlington native, Vos was college roommates at UW-Whitewater with Reince Priebus, who would go on to be Republican National Committee chairman and chief of staff to President Donald Trump, and Andy Speth, Ryan’s chief of staff.
At 19, Vos was named a student representative to the UW Board of Regents by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson.
“He was very passionate, very intelligent, very articulate — sort of driven. He loved politics and you could feel it,” Thompson said.
Vos after college worked as a staffer for Republican Rep. Bonnie Ladwig, and during that time made an impression on U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, who occupied a neighboring office as a newly minted state representative. Grothman said Vos stood out to him among other staffers and had assisted him in his transition to the state Capitol, teaching him how to run the office.
The time as a staffer set him up in 1994 to run for and win a seat on the Racine County Board, where he served for 10 years while also expanding his business ventures. In 1996 he purchased Rojo’s Popcorn.
Those who know Vos tout his entrepreneurial spirit, which conservatives such as Grothman argue keeps his policy decisions grounded in their real-world consequences.
Vos has accumulated 26 college rental properties and seven companies, according to a statement of economic interest filed with the state. One of those is a political consulting agency with his new wife, former Rep. Michelle Litjens.
John Gard, a close friend and former GOP Assembly speaker between 2003 and 2005, said Vos’ work ethic carries over to his work guiding the Assembly.
“I don’t think anybody works harder,” Gard said. “People know Robin has been battle tested.”
Under Vos’ leadership, Republicans have seen some of the largest majorities in the Assembly beginning with the 2010 wave. Republicans in 2019 will hold 63 of 99 Assembly seats, down one seat from their high-water mark of 64 seats this session.
Critics argue much of those gains are due to gerrymandered political maps given Republicans only captured 46 percent of the popular vote in Assembly races. Even so, Vos during the lame-duck session repeatedly extolled the Legislature as the most representative branch of government.
Gard has had disagreements with the speaker, particularly for what he deems as “unnecessary attacks” on the building trades. Vos has been a champion of so-called “right-to-work” legislation and repealing the prevailing wage.
But Vos also has had to compromise with a caucus that’s more “hard-nosed” than he is, Gard said.
Others said Vos has quelled Republican renegades and pushed his caucus in one general direction, but not without its sticking points.
“A lot of his conference sometimes wishes he didn’t compromise so much, actually,” Grothman said.
Vos had particular trouble with several conservative Republican senators who held up the last budget — Chris Kapenga, Steve Nass and Duey Stroebel — leading him to call them “terrorists” on TV, a comment for which he later apologized.
Differences with some in the caucus, specifically on socially conservative issues, have occasionally caused fissures.
For example, Vos never brought a bill to the floor that would have banned the sale of fetal tissue for research purposes on the basis there wasn’t consensus on the issue. And though he voted for the now-invalidated amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005, he doesn’t share the views of religious conservatives on birth control.
“I’m a single guy,” he told the Racine Journal Times in 2005. “To say I am against birth control is to say I am against water.”
Vos has a reputation for maintaining an orderly caucus. But critics argue he also has a penchant for secrecy.
Liberal group One Wisconsin Now shared records of the settlement from Vos’ second divorce in 2012, which includes a gag order preventing his ex-wife from ever speaking about their marriage publicly without Vos’ permission.
Additionally, Vos stipulated she could not change her marital status on Facebook until it was clear he did not have an election opponent or, if he did, until after the 2012 election.
Vos declined to address the divorce.
Critics also pointed to Vos’ request in 2015 for legislation that would have curtailed the state’s open records law by blocking public access to nearly all records of state and local lawmakers or their aides. Both Walker and Fitzgerald acknowledged their role in drafting the language which was eventually stripped from the state budget after public outcry.
Vos still defends the language, arguing excessive open records requests can be a significant cost to taxpayers.
But in other arenas, those close to Vos describe him as more compassionate than he might otherwise let on.
Vos, for example, said he has hired dozens of prisoners at his businesses, helping them in the transition to life after incarceration and providing him with a window into the lives of people he otherwise wouldn’t meet.
“He has a bigger heart than I think he wants people to know,” Republican strategist Brian Fraley said.
Even so, he still keeps a hard-line view on crime and punishment.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the prison system that does not deserve to be there,” Vos said.
If Vos had his way, Walker would be entering a third term in office and the two would continue to whittle away at the reach of state government. Vos’ dog’s name is Reagan, after all.
But Wisconsin voters in November dealt him a different hand, one he admits makes him less excited for the New Year.
“I was hoping we’d be able to have a four-year transformation discussion of what government should be doing,” Vos said. “Unfortunately now we’re probably not going to get at the same discussion.”
Vos said he’s open to compromising with Evers; however, much will depend on Evers’ budget proposal, which Vos described as “the first move in the chess match.”
“My style is very collaborative. I try not to rush into decisions. I have to persuade people.” Robin Vos, Assembly speaker
WASHINGTON — Three days, maybe four. That’s how long Ethan James, 21, says he can realistically miss work before he’s struggling.
So as the partial government shutdown stretched into its sixth day with no end in sight, James, a minimum-wage contractor sidelined from his job as an office worker at the Interior Department, was worried. “I live check to check right now,” he said, and risks missing his rent or phone payment. Contractors, unlike most federal employees, may never get back pay for being idled. “I’m getting nervous,” he said.
Federal workers and contractors forced to stay home or work without pay are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse affecting hundreds of thousands of them. For those without a financial cushion, even a few days of lost wages during the shutdown over President Donald Trump’s border wall could have dire consequences.
As well, the disruption is starting to pinch citizens who count on a variety of public services, beyond those who’ve been finding gates closed at national parks. For example, the government won’t issue new federal flood insurance policies or renew expiring ones.
Trump and congressional leaders appear no closer to a resolution over his demand for $5 billion for the border wall that could now push the shutdown into the new year. The House and Senate gaveled in for a perfunctory session Thursday, but quickly adjourned without action. No votes are expected until next week, and even that’s not guaranteed. Lawmakers are mostly away for the holidays and will be given 24-hour notice to return, with Republican senators saying they won’t vote until all parties, including Trump, agree to a deal.
The president spent part of the day tweeting about the shutdown, insisting “this isn’t about the Wall,” but about Democrats denying him “a win.”
“Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?” he asked in one tweet, citing no evidence for that claim. That earned him a reprimand from Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who tweeted: “Federal employees don’t go to work wearing red or blue jerseys. They’re public servants.”
Roughly federal 420,000 workers were deemed essential and are working unpaid, unable to take any sick days or vacation. An additional 380,000 are staying home without pay. While furloughed federal workers have been given back pay in previous shutdowns, it’s not guaranteed. The Senate passed a bill last week to make sure workers will be paid. The House will probably follow suit.
The longer the shutdown lasts, the more government activities will grind to a halt. It’s already caused a lapse in money for nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice.
Many national parks have closed while some have limited facilities. The National Flood Insurance Program announced it will no longer renew or issue policies during the shutdown.
“I think it’s obvious that until the president decides he can sign something — or something is presented to him — that we are where we are,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who opened the Senate for the minutes-long session. “We just have to get through this.”
House Democrats tried Thursday to offer a measure to re-open government, but they were blocked from action by Republicans, who still have majority control of the chamber until Democrats take over Jan. 3.
“Unfortunately, 800,000 federal workers are in a panic because they don’t know whether they’ll get paid,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who tried to offer the bill. “That may make the president feel good but the rest of us should be terribly bothered by that, and should work on overtime to end the shutdown now.”
Government contractors like James, placed indefinitely on unpaid leave, don’t get compensated for lost hours.
James said the contracting company he works for gave its employees a choice: take unpaid leave or dip into paid time-off entitlements. But James doesn’t have any paid time off because he started the job just four months ago. His only option is forgoing a paycheck.
“This is my full-time job, this is what I was putting my time into until I can save up to take a few classes,” said James, who plans to study education and become a teacher. “I’m going to have to look for something else to sustain me.”
Mary Morrow, a components engineer on contract for NASA, is in the same predicament. In addition to caring for a family largely on her own, she’s got a mortgage.
“I have three teenage boys, it’s near Christmas time and we just spent money, there are credit card bills and normal bills and it’s really nerve-wracking,” she said. “It’s scary.”
As federal employees tell their stories on Twitter under the hashtag #Shutdownstories, Trump has claimed that federal workers are behind him, saying many have told him “stay out until you get the funding for the wall.’” He didn’t say whom he had heard from, and he did not explain the incongruity of also believing that most are Democrats.
Steve Reaves, president of Federal Emergency Management Agency union, said he hasn’t heard from any employees who say they support the shutdown.
“They’re all by far worried about their mortgages,” Reaves said.
The end of 2018 marks one of the worst years in recent memory for farmers in Wisconsin.
According to the latest data collected by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin lost 638 dairy herds in 2018. With a percentage loss of just over seven percent, this is the largest drop since data was first collected in 2004.
Farms continue to close around the dairy state nearly every day and Jim Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said there are a few root causes of the difficulties to keep family and independent farms open.
“It is human nature to try and find something at the cause of it,” Holte said. “The most obvious is the price farmers are receiving for their products. Regardless of what commodity a farm was in, the prices were challenging across the whole spectrum of agriculture.
“They are clearly in the low range and for the past two or three years they’ve been lower than desired. That’s the first thing that comes to mind, but weather is always a variable we can’t control and causes angst at times. There was too much rain at times, but you can’t plan for a rain of 6 or 8 inches. And in the same breath I found the rains could actually have been more frequent in some areas. Every aspect was just very unreliable.”
Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said in addition to the bad weather and lowering market prices for dairy products and products in general, recent diplomatic relations with other countries under the Trump administration have only been making the market worse for Wisconsin farmers.
“Economically, this was probably one of the worst years I’ve seen for farmers since the 1980s crisis and probably even close to what they saw in the Dust Bowl era,” Von Ruden said. “Most of it is due to overproduction. Pretty much all commodities are seeing overproduction in the United States, but in the trade wars we saw in the second half of the year from the Trump administration didn’t help.”
President Trump’s trade war with China, including adding billions of dollars in tariffs on U.S. agriculture exports, has farms who rely on foreign markets in addition to domestic struggling to keep their heads above water.
With all of the economic uncertainty of whether or not products will be consumed overseas after their production, Holte said the one word that plagued the Wisconsin farming scene in 2018 was “uncertainty.”
“There was a lot of uncertainty for farmers,” Holte said. “We were compromised on the Farm Bill and were compromised by President Trump. We’ve all become painfully aware that our markets are not just local or nationwide, they are global. Trading prices have a great impact on our farming, and we hope to have more reliable places to send our products because we feed a lot of people outside of this country.”
However, recognizing a need to stabilize the farming market in America, on Dec. 20, President Trump signed a $867 billion farm bill that will provide aid to U.S. farmers. While it isn’t certain how big of an impact this will make on Wisconsin farmers specifically, it is a step in the right direction in aiding Wisconsin’s farmers.
While the effects of the bill are still uncertain, Von Ruden said the key to a better 2019 for Wisconsin farmers is to find a new way to manage their products in-house.
“We need to figure out some kind of a supply system, whether it’s supply management or inventory management, but some way to make sure we’re not producing commodities that go to waste,” Von Ruden said. “We’re wasting a lot of time and energy producing products that probably shouldn’t have been produced in the first place.”
While 2018 was filled with decreasing market prices, less than stellar weather and uncertainty in the market place due to poor diplomatic relations with large overseas consumers, there is hope for the 2019 farming season to be a better one in Wisconsin if the 2018 farming bill is effective and overproduction can be cut down in whatever capacity possible.