On March 7, the Wisconsin Senate passed a bill reforming the public sector union bargaining process. For weeks, the Senate remained at an impasse on the issue as absent Senate Democrats denied the quorum required to move forward. By redrafting the bill to exclude certain fiscal items, a 2/3 quorum was no longer required to vote on the legislation. The Senate promptly approved the bill 18-1.
After passage of the bill by the Senate, the Joint Committee of Conference then received the bill. This committee’s responsibility is to make changes to similar pieces of legislation passed in both the Senate and House. Once these changes are approved by the Joint Committee of Conference, the legislation is then submitted for approval by the legislative chambers. For a bill to be submitted to the governor for his signature — and thereby enacted into law– the language in the bill passed by the Senate and the House must be identical. In this case, the Joint Committee of Conference approved the language of the bill passed by the Senate verbatim, submitting this to the House for Approval.
Typically, consideration of legislation by this committee for the mark-up process takes weeks. However, the committee completed its work on this public sector union bill just hours after posting notice of its upcoming meeting.
Much criticism has been levied at the Wisconsin Republicans for the actions of the Joint Committee Meeting. In a dramatic outburst, Representative Peter Barca proclaimed, “This is a violation of the Open Meetings Law!” What does the law say? The portion which the Democrats claim is being violated is Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, in particular 19.84 of the statute.
19.84 (1) Public notice of all meetings of a governmental body shall be given in the following manner:….(2) Every public notice of a meeting of a governmental body shall set forth the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting, including that intended for consideration at any contemplated closed session, in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof. The public notice of a meeting of a governmental body may provide for a period of public comment, during which the body may receive information from members of the public.(3) Public notice of every meeting of a governmental body shall be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of such meeting unless for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting.”
At first glance, it appears that due to the lack of a 24 hours notice to the public, the Joint Committee of Conference violated the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. However, there is much more to this statute. We must also take into consideration 19.87 regarding the notice required by legislative meetings.
19.87(2) No provision of this subchapter which conflicts with a rule of the senate or assembly or joint rule of the legislature shall apply to a meeting conducted in compliance with such rule.
Is there is a rule senate or assembly or joint rule which qualifies for this exception to the general Wisconsin Open Meetings Law notice requirements? To determine this, we simply need to take a look at the Wisconsin rules for the legislature.
Joint Rule 27. Committee hearings open to public. Unless otherwise provided by law, every committee hearing, executive session, or other meeting shall be open to the public. If time permits, advance notice of every regularly scheduled committee hearing, executive session, or other meeting shall be published as provided in joint rule 75.
Since this was not a regularly scheduled meeting, Joint Rule 75 does not apply. Joint Rule 27 requires only that such a non-regularly scheduled meeting be open to the public, without proscribing a time requirement.
In addition, the Senate Rules clearly agree with this analysis.
(2) A notice of a committee meeting is not required other than posting on the legislative bulletin board, and a bulletin of committee hearings may not be published.
Senate Rule 93 (3)
(3) The daily calendar is in effect immediately upon posting on the legislative bulletin boards. The calendar need not be distributed.
The Senate clerk indeed posted notice of this committee online. The Senate rules require no notice of a committee meeting besides such a posting on the legislative bulletin board. This requirement is far less than the 24 hour notice guidelines specified 19.84 (1) of the Open Meetings Law. However, we saw in 19.87(2) of the same statute, that a senate, assembly, or joint rule does in fact trump this much more stringent notice requirement!
Accusations that the Wisconsin Republicans violated this law are incongruent with reality, distort the law, and qualify as demagoguery.