MADISON — Senate Republicans approved new rules banning repeat protesters from attending floor debates and committee hearings Tuesday in a move designed to restore decorum in the wake of one of the most chaotic legislative sessions in Wisconsin history.
Under the plan, anyone who violates decorum in the Senate chamber, parlor, offices or hearing rooms could be removed for 24 hours. Third-time offenders could be barred from any Senate space for the remainder of the two-year session.
Observers in the Senate’s overhead gallery cannot use any electronic devices or display any objects or signs, a departure from current rules that ban only cellphones, pagers, laptops and signs. The new rules also require anyone who attends a Senate committee to remain seated and silent and abide by the gallery’s prohibition on displays.
The Senate approved the rules on an 18-14 party-line vote after minority Democrats spent more than an hour complaining about the changes. They contended the measures diminish government transparency and give majority Republicans too much power to decide what rises to a violation.
“What did we do today?” Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said. “The majority party … voted to add a three-strikes-and-you’re-out for people who want to petition their government by coming to the gallery and showing an interest in what’s happening here.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, countered that the rules were justified in light of protesters’ behavior over the last two years.
“People were hauled out of the gallery right up to the end of the last session,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Assembly Republicans adopted similar rules last week. The moves reflect the GOP’s still-simmering frustration with the 2011-2012 session.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker sent Democrats and their allies into an outrage at the outset the session when he introduced a bill that stripped most public workers of nearly all their union rights. Senate Democrats fled to Illinois in a futile attempt to prevent a vote, and tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the Capitol and protested around the clock for weeks.
Republicans ultimately passed the bill anyway, but the protests set a toxic tone for the remainder of the session. One group of agitators that refused to go away took to disrupting committees and floor sessions, heckling GOP lawmakers, chasing them down Capitol corridors with video cameras and draping banners over gallery and Capitol railings.
Groups of demonstrators still gather in the Capitol every day to sing anti-Walker chants, while protesters continue to walk around outside the building shouting about the governor.