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Wisconsin Assembly speaker denies paralyzed lawmaker request

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly told a paralyzed Democratic state representative in a letter Thursday that he will not grant his request to call in to committee meetings by phone but will pursue other accommodations to appease the lawmaker.

Speaker Robin Vos sent Rep. Jimmy Anderson the letter just hours after The Associated Press contacted every Republican in leadership to see if they agreed with barring Anderson from calling into meetings.

None of the lawmakers commented. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported on Anderson’s request on Monday.

Vos tells Anderson that he can’t change the Assembly meeting rule “by fiat” and the full Assembly would have to vote. However, Vos repeated his opposition to allowing lawmakers to phone in to committee meetings, a practice that’s not allowed in many other state legislatures but that the Wisconsin Senate does permit.

“This tends to lend itself to disruptive, ineffective meetings,” Vos wrote to Anderson. “Additionally, it is disrespectful to the members of the public who come to testify on legislation. I have always been disappointed to walk into a Senate hearing to see a chairperson surrounded by only phones because the members did not show up in person to listen to testimony.”

However, in an attempt to accommodate Anderson, Vos said he would make a videographer available upon request for meetings Anderson can’t make so he could possibly watch them using a livestream or on tape later. Vos said he would also consider changing the rules to allow for voting by paper ballot, a process in which the lawmaker can vote without being present.

But Vos also took exception with Anderson’s decision to take his complaint to the press.

“Instead of resorting to political grandstanding, you could have called my personal cell phone at any time to discuss this matter,” Vos said.

Anderson, in an interview before the letter was sent on Thursday, expressed frustration that Republicans were not commenting on his request.

“It sucks, it’s really sad,” Anderson said. “No one’s reaching out. It’s really a bummer.”

Anderson, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a drunken driver slammed into his car in 2010, killing his parents and brother, wants to change an Assembly rule to allow people with disabilities who can’t physically be present for meetings to dial in by phone instead. The Wisconsin Senate allows for any of its members, disabled or not, to attend meetings by phone.

Rules in other statehouses across the country vary. Many states have a similar in-person requirement as the Wisconsin Assembly. But there are exceptions, including in Alaska, the largest state by square miles, where lawmakers can phone into committee meetings for any reason.

The letter from Vos came after an outcry from advocates for the disabled, Democrats, editorial boards and on social media.

“Everyone should be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement Thursday before Vos sent the letter. “That’s a pretty simple concept, and those are our Wisconsin values. Rep. Anderson was duly elected by the people he represents, and Vos’ refusal to make the necessary accommodations for Rep. Anderson to participate is not just a disservice to him, but to our values, the democratic process, and the people of our state.”

Anderson, 32, said that Vos “really misunderstands what it means to be a disabled person.” Anderson said he is reliant on a home health assistant and, if she is unable to assist him at the time needed, he might not be able to arrive at the Capitol in time for a meeting.

“I have to organize my life and get help from other people to live my life,” said Anderson, who was elected to the Assembly in 2016 and re-elected in 2018. And while he can’t always physically make it to the Capitol for a meeting, he always has his phone with him and could dial in, Anderson said.

Anderson said that, before Thursday’s letter, that it would be too early to say whether he will bring a lawsuit, although he is researching whether he would qualify as an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act since he is a lawmaker.

Vos noted that Anderson has been accommodated in other ways, including with the purchase of a special wireless microphone for the Assembly floor and installation of special voting equipment. His personal assistant was also granted access to his computer, even though she’s not a state employee.

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