MADISON, Wis. — A paralyzed Wisconsin lawmaker would be allowed to call into committee meetings he can’t attend in person under rule changes Republicans unveiled Tuesday that are designed to meet demands the Democrat made nearly a year ago.
Republicans provided The Associated Press with their proposed rule changes ahead of making them public Tuesday. The full Assembly will vote on them on Thursday.
“This is really breaking new ground with accommodations for someone who is permanently disabled,” Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke told the AP. “We’re setting standards I think can be duplicated in statehouses across the country.”
Democratic Rep. Jimmy Anderson uses a wheelchair and says he is reliant on a home health assistant who is not always available at the time needed. He first asked in January to be able to call into meetings he couldn’t make and for assurances that the Assembly would not be in session late at night, or overnight. Republicans worked on the rule changes in private and did not consult with Anderson or Democrats, so it wasn’t immediately clear whether he was satisfied that the proposal meets his concerns.
Anderson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Steineke called the accommodations “reasonable” and said he was confident they would meet all of Anderson’s demands.
Anderson and Republicans publicly sparred over his requests. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos initially refused to grant Anderson’s request, saying it was disrespectful to those who attended meetings in person.
The fight became so bitter, Vos accused Anderson of “political grandstanding” and in August said Anderson went public with his requests to undermine the GOP legislator’s taking over as head of a national organization. Anderson responded by calling the Vos claims “sad,” “ridiculous” and “myopic.”
Anderson, 33, was paralyzed from the waist down after a drunken driver in 2010 smashed into a vehicle he was in, killing his parents and brother. He was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2018. Anderson has said that GOP leaders did not accommodate his needs when they held an overnight lame-duck legislative session in December on legislation to curb the power of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Anderson, an attorney, said he was investigating whether he could file a lawsuit alleging Republicans were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Under the rule change, anyone certified by the Legislature’s human resources department as having a permanent disability could participate in Assembly committee meetings and executive session votes by phone. They would have to give at least two hours’ notice.
Another rule change would allow the Assembly’s rules committee to set time limits on debate. That would be a way to give certainty on debate length and prevent overnight sessions, Steineke said.
Under current practice, Democrats and Republicans meet to agree upon time limits. The change is meant to address times when those talks break down, Steineke said.
Rules in other statehouses across the country vary, with most states having a similar in-person requirement as the Wisconsin Assembly. Exceptions include Alaska, the largest state by square miles, where lawmakers can phone into committee meetings for any reason. New Hampshire makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
No other state has similar accommodations for lawmakers with disabilities, Steineke said. The Wisconsin Senate allows for any lawmaker, for any reason, to participate in committee meetings by phone.