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Wisconsin state Senate switches party for third time in two years

By Brendan O'Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Republicans took back control of the Wisconsin state legislature, five months after Democrats seized a slim majority of the upper chamber during a nasty fight over Governor Scott Walker's measures to curb public sector unions.

The election result on Tuesday represented the third switch in party control of the state Senate in two years because of the bitter battle over unions.

Republicans first took control of the state Senate in the 2010 elections, then lost it in June after Democrats and unions staged a series of successful recalls of conservative lawmakers who had supported the union restrictions.

But before the recalls Walker and his fellow Republican legislative leaders had redrawn district lines to favor them. After Tuesday's election, Republicans emerged with a preliminary 17-15 majority in the Senate and a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives or Assembly.

A special state Senate election to be held in December in a Republican stronghold is expected to add to the party's power in the 33-member chamber.

Wisconsin Republicans regained power in the state Senate even though President Barack Obama won the state, and Democrat Tammy Baldwin won the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race. Having Wisconsin native Congressman Paul Ryan as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's runningmate did not appear to help the party in national races.

When the Wisconsin legislature reconvenes in January, Republicans are expected to have at least a 20-vote majority in the Assembly, depending on final election tallies.

The majorities give Walker a largely free hand to shape the state's next biennial budget. Walker told reporters Tuesday night that he looks forward to helping small businesses by reforming the tax code and regulatory process and by easing access to capital for entrepreneurs.

"My belief is that many of the things that we will be pursuing, the vast majority in fact, will be things that Democrats and Republicans alike can support," Walker said.

Tuesday's victories mean Republicans will also have a second chance to pass legislation to encourage mining exploration in the state.

During the last legislative session early this year, Senate Republicans were unable to garner enough votes for mining legislation.

Walker in June became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall.

(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Greg McCune)

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