This spring, the 400-level investigative reporting class I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sought to answer the question: Is Wisconsin’s democracy declining?
We looked for ways to gain insights by consulting political figures, activists and thought leaders on the left and right and polling data to help us understand how Wisconsin residents are feeling about the state of democracy. We also looked for concrete ways to measure democracy.
In recent years, as I covered state issues for the Wisconsin State Journal and later the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, I noticed that some bills in the Legislature sprang up with little to no warning and were quickly approved, giving the public and opposing party little chance to influence the course of the legislation.
In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker acknowledged, he “dropped the bomb” on labor unions with his budget-repair bill. Walker said the legislation was aimed at saving taxpayers money, but it also contained numerous provisions that hobbled public employee unions which had mostly supported Democrats.
The bill was introduced and passed in less than a month as tens of thousands of Wisconsinites took to the streets and occupied the Capitol in protest, and Democratic senators fled to Illinois to avoid voting on it. It passed anyway.
Then, in 2015, I covered the sudden emergence of a measure, the so-called Right to Work bill, which weakened private sector unions. That measure, spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was introduced and passed in two weeks. It took many stakeholder groups, including construction companies that opposed the measure, off guard.
West Bend businessman and commentator John Torinus, who has backed Walker and contributed to his campaign, has referred to this phenomenon as “government by surprise.”
I wondered: Is this a trend? We decided to track every bill over the past 20 years to see if, in fact, deliberation time had gone down in recent years and, if so, by how much.
We also wanted to see how many bills were fast-tracked. Since there is no official definition for “fast-tracking,” we created our own benchmark. Many lawmakers and members of the public criticized the speed with which the Foxconn corporate subsidy deal was introduced and passed. So we used the 48-day deliberation time for Foxconn as our maximum deliberation time for a bill to be considered fast-tracked.
Graduate journalism student Teodor “Teddy” Teofilov came up with the methodology.
The data used in the analysis are publicly available on the Wisconsin Legislature’s website. The acts passed from the 1997-98 session to the 2015-16 session can be found here, and the most recent 2017-18 session acts can be found here. We examined only bills that became laws.
The deliberation time was determined by taking the date the bill was first introduced in either the state Assembly or Senate and seeing how many days it took for it to be enacted as a law.
Once the data were compiled for all 3,536 acts over the past 20 years, we took the sum of the total number of days and divided it by the number of acts to arrive at an average deliberation time over that period, which is 164 days on average for that period.
Following this, we separated each session on its own and looked at the individual average deliberation period in the same manner. For example, in the 2005-06 session, the sum of the number of days was 91,040, and a total of 491 acts were passed. The average for this, when you divide 91,040 by 491, is 185 days of deliberation per act.
Fast-tracking, we discovered, increased sharply in Walker’s first two years, from a 20-year average of 11.2 percent of all bills to 26 percent of all bills in the 2011-12 session.
We decided not to analyze the content of each bill. Some of the shortest bills — such as the two-page Right to Work measure — have wide-ranging impact while some lengthy bills consist of myriad technical law fixes with little real-world impact.
We did remove routine, already-negotiated labor contract ratifications from the analysis because those bills pass with little to no deliberation and their presence could distort the analysis. Teofilov triple-checked the dates of introduction and enactment of all 3,536 bills over that time to ensure the analysis was sound.
We wanted to put our findings in a national context, but Teofilov’s interviews with several experts found no similar analysis of legislative deliberation time in another state.
In the end, the broad picture we found was this: When Walker was first elected, he and the Republican-run Legislature did, in fact, move very quickly on some sweeping legislation. Over time, deliberation time lengthened, but the governor and legislative leaders continued to act very quickly on some of the most important bills, including the $3.2 billion-plus state taxpayer subsidy to Foxconn.
Does that mean our democracy is in trouble, or just running more efficiently, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos states? That is for you, the people, to decide.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s collaborations with journalism students are funded in part by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates. The Center’s coverage of democracy issues is supported by The Joyce Foundation.