Wisconsin Legislature Shuts Down Comment Line After Too Many Complaints

The protesters amassed outside the state capitol in Madison, WI and their supporters across the country have succeeded in getting state Republicans to back down on at least one front: the toll-free Legislative Hotline that the legislature has kept open 24 hours a day for more than 20 years.

After a flood of calls that legislative staff tell TPM came from “unions and other non-profits,” the legislature’s Sergeant at Arms ordered the number disconnected Friday, a move that according to sources could save the state quite a bit of money as the protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) union-busting budget plan rage.

One union source said he didn’t know about the call flooding, but he said that Republicans have another think coming if they believe taking down a phone number will silence the frustrated union supporters with their eyes on Madison this week.During business hours, the Legislative Hotline is answered by a real person, a longtime staffer in the Sergeant at Arms office told me. Normally, people call to ask who their legislator is and how to contact him or her — usually so the caller can complain about something the state government’s up to.

The Hotline doesn’t take the complaint — it merely helps constituents find the right politician to complain to (or, in what is likely much more rare instances, offer a compliment to).

Each call to the toll-free line costs the state 10 cents, the staffer told me. And once Walker’s budget proposal became news, the calls starting pouring in nonstop. Once the phone was hung up, it would ring again. Hundreds and hundreds of calls, every hour — even at 3 AM, when the Hotline transfers to voicemail.

But cutting off the line during the height of the protest, the argument goes, the state will save a ton. The Sergeant at Arms’ office blamed the calls on an organized system run by union or pro-union advocacy group. The office told TPM that a system set up by the group allowed callers to “press one to speak to their Representative” which would then in turn ring the legislative line.

This is not the first time the Hotline has been flooded with calls. As one long-time legislative staffer told me, “there are always controversial bills in Madison.” But this time the call volume was so high, legislative staff said, that the line had to be cut off. It’s he first time in the more than 20 years the line’s been open that the Sergeant at Arms had it disconnected, according to staff in Madison.

A spokesperson for the AFL-CIO told TPM that he didn’t know of any scheme to direct calls to the Legislative Hotline, and he suggested such a plan didn’t really make sense as legislators in Wisconsin would probably only care about calls that came from people in Wisconsin, not national complaints from people forwarded to them by an outside group.

“And that’s why their offices have been swamped with tens of thousands of people, letters, phone calls and emails because the people of Wisconsin oppose this radical attack,” AFL-CIO Political Communications Director Eddie Vale said.

The Republicans in control of both Houses of the legislature “can turn off their phones, they can put their fingers in their ears and stamp their feet, but the voices of the men and women of Wisconsin will be heard,” Vale added.

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