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Wisconsin Legislators Need to Move Forward

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What has been one of the more eventful legislative sessions in Wisconsin's history came to an end early Friday morning after months of contentious legislation and unprecedented protests. Walking down State Street, one can see "Recall Walker" stickers and solidarity fists dotting store windows; Wisconsin politics has no doubt seen a historic year.

Much of the dialogue concerning state politics in the past year has focused around contentious legislation: union reform, a mining bill, sex education, etc. Equally, if not more important to the discussion, however, is the actual legislative process itself, and what it has undergone this past year.

Recently, The Badger Herald Editorial Board sat down with Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. When asked about what changes the Wisconsin State Assembly has seen over the past year, Pocan noted a sense of division that did not previously exist; he explained that what used to be friendly handshakes have turned into a complete lack of acknowledgment.

As noted by ballotopedia.org, in the state Senate race of 2010, there were five new Republicans and two new Democrats elected, and in the state Assembly there were 25 new Republicans and eight new Democrats. That means going into this past session, there were 40 newcomers out of all 132 legislators, or almost a third of the Wisconsin State Legislature.

Think of the first few weeks at a new job: you form an idea of what is expected and what the appropriate standard of behavior is. Now apply that idea to this past legislative session. The standard has been set as aggressive partisanship and fierce contention. Yet while there has been disdain expressed toward the past legislative session, we also need to worry about the future.

As Pocan explained, the legislative newcomers will likely have a distorted sense of what is normal. Because new Democrats were taught their input will be ignored and new Republicans learned they didn't need to compromise, an unyielding, stubborn mindset will probably dominate future sessions that include these legislators.

The Editorial Board also met with Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison recently. When asked about her impression of how politics have changed in the state over the past year, she noted that there has been a lack of transparency, as can be seen with Republicans signing secrecy pledges about redistricting. She further recognized that this kind of transparency undermines the democratic process; citizens can't trust legislators if those legislators feel the need to hide their actions behind a veil of secrecy.

When considering the dishonorable norms that the new legislators learned and the lack of transparency we have seen over the past year, a lot needs to be fixed in the Wisconsin Legislature. Recent political opining has mostly been aimed at the laws passed in the last session, but more concerning is the future of the state's legislative process. How can we possibly return to a civil Legislature? No Band-Aid will heal a laceration this deep.

There is the possibility that Democrats will regain the governor's office and part of the Legislature. Unfortunately, if this happens, their first agenda items will probably be to try and undo what Republicans have done, further dividing the parties. However, if Democrats don't take back enough seats, then Republicans will still be in control and most likely carry on as they have been since they have shown no intention of slowing down.

While I do object to some of the laws that have been enacted in the past year, what worries me most is the future of Wisconsin. Whoever is in control needs to take the initiative and give some ground to the other party. Handshakes and compromise need to be the norm, not frustration and a complete lack of recognition. What it comes down to is simple: Can legislators actually embody Wisconsin's ideals and learn to move forward?

Reginald Young (ryoung@badgerherald.com) is a junior majoring in legal studies and Scandinavian studies.

This piece first appeared in The Badger Herald. Questions: Signe Brewster, Editor-in-Chief, The Badger Herald | sbrewster@badgerherald.com | (608) 257-4712 x101