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School Safety Package, Juvenile Justice Overhaul Clears Wisconsin Legislature

Assembly Passes Gov. Walker's Proposed Sales Tax Holiday, Child Tax Credit

Wisconsin State Capitol Reflection
Ann Althouse (CC BY-NC)

A proposal to close Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison and reorganize the state’s juvenile justice system is headed to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.

The state Assembly voted unanimously Thursday to approve the bill, which passed the state Senate earlier in the week.

The plan first passed the Assembly last month. Minor changes from the Senate necessitated a final stamp of approval from the Assembly.

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“I think they are good additions to the bill,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, of the Senate changes. “They did not substantively change it.”

The plan would create a mix of smaller state- and county-run institutions to replace the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons and set aside money to pay for them.

Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have been plagued by allegations of years of abuse and neglect of inmates. Earlier this week, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections announced an $18.9 million settlement with a girl who was severely brain damaged after attempting suicide at Copper Lake.

The bill would also give the Legislature’s budget committee more control over the institutions that replace Lincoln Hills and give the Senate majority leader the power to appoint members to a commission that will make suggestions on the state’s juvenile corrections policy moving forward.

Walker lauded the Legislature’s action Thursday.

“Over the past year, we’ve worked with county officials, members of the judiciary, and lawmakers in both political parties on juvenile justice reform,” Walker said in a prepared statement. “I thank members in both parties for their commitment to long-term solutions, and because of our work together, we are helping improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff in these facilities.”

Walker could sign the legislation any time.

The Assembly is also slated Thursday to take up Senate changes to two of the governor’s other major legislative priorities: a school safety package and a pair of tax proposals.

School Safety Package

Assembly lawmakers also approved a school safety package championed by the governor on a vote of 78-8.

Under the plan, the state would launch a $100 million grant program for schools to pay for things including safety-related facility upgrades. The package also includes new requirements for school safety plans and reporting by school staff who hear students make threats of violence.

The Senate removed specific language from the original proposal about funding for armed guards in schools, as well as a provision requiring schools to inform parents about incidents of bullying within 48 hours.

“No parent should send their child to school with the thought that they might not come home,” said Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma.

Felzkowski represents Antigo, where a student shot two others outside of a school dance in 2016.

Assembly Republicans introduced a new element to the package on Thursday.

That provision would increase the number of gun sales subject to a background check using the state’s background check system. Current law requires only a scan of the federal system for some gun sales, including sales of long guns.

The state Senate would have to return to Madison to approve that change before it could move to Walker’s desk.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Associated Press that may happen.

During debate, Democrats pushed back on the school safety package, arguing it should include changes to Wisconsin gun laws.

“You’re not willing to do the important things that people are demanding from us,” said Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee. “You’re never going to have the guts to deal with the things like expanding background checks … because you’re afraid of special interests.”

Democrats had pushed for universal background checks, a ban on bump stocks, which make weapons deadlier, and new limits on who can buy a gun, including people who have a history of domestic violence.

“I don’t think anybody on our side is going to say this is the best bill possible,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, before the vote.

Hintz called the measures “rushed through,” “reactive,” and “the minimum.”

Tax Proposals

The governor’s pair of tax proposals approved by the Assembly would create a one-time, $100 tax credit per child for Wisconsin parents and authorize a sales tax holiday for the first weekend in August.

The Assembly passed the revisions Thursday with a 59-31 vote.

The Senate approved the plans on Tuesday.

The tax holiday would cover clothing purchases up to $75, computer purchases up to $750, “school computer supply” purchases up to $250, and school supply purchases up to $75. According to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, the changes would decrease the overall cost of the sales tax holiday from roughly $50 million to about $12 million.

The child tax credit is projected to cost $122 million.

The bill now moves to Walker for his signature.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 6:25 p.m. on March 22, 2018.