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As Session’s End Nears, State Senate, Assembly Tackle Slew Of Legislation

Assembly Expected To Finish Session Thursday

Wisconsin Senate Chambers
Richard Hurd (CC-BY)  

Both chambers of the state Legislature went into overdrive on Tuesday, with lawmakers considering a flurry of legislation before the 2015-2016 session ends.

The Assembly took up more than 100 bills on its agenda Tuesday. The state Senate had 50 items.

The Senate sent several bills to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk on Tuesday night, including a repeal of Wisconsin’s decades-old moratorium on new nuclear power plants and plans that would scale back environmental laws in favor of encouraging private development.

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The Senate also punted on other controversial bills, including one that would make it easier for private companies to purchase public water utilities and another that would significantly increase what the state pays to people who served prison time for crimes they didn’t commit.

The Assembly, for its part, passed a wide-ranging series of legislation, including a package of six college affordability bills backed by Walker, a bill that will require parents keep children under age 2 in rear-facing car seats and a bill that subjects the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association to open records laws.

A plan that would increase penalties for unemployment insurance fraud will also go to the Senate, along with a plan that would allow online voter registration and a measure that would create a criminal penalty for fraud against the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

The WEDC bill, however, is unlikely to actually be taken up in the Senate, according to a report from the Wisconsin State Journal.

Some Legislation Gets Postponed

The water utility bill that the Senate punted on had come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks as news spread about the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. The bill would have made it harder for the public to block the sale of water utilities, by making the currently mandated referendums on such sales optional.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said after the Senate met on Tuesday that some of his members remained uncomfortable with the plan and it won’t pass this year.

“Yeah, it’s not going anywhere,” Fitzgerald told reporters. “Not at this point.”

Fitzgerald said he still thinks there’s merit to the idea of letting municipalities sell their water utilities if they don’t have enough money to rebuild aging facilities.

Fitzgerald wasn’t yet ready to call it quits on another bill that would increase what the state pays people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes.

“I’m afraid to say it’s dead without really kind of surveying the members, but it wasn’t really on anybody’s radar screens,” Fitzgerald said.

The bill would increase the maximum state payment to people who were wrongfully imprisoned from $25,000 to $1 million. It passed the Assembly unanimously.

Senate’s Votes Are Mixed Bag On Environmental Bills

While the water utility bill represented a win for environmental groups, other bills that passed the Senate were seen as a victory for Wisconsin’s business lobby. Among them was the bill to lift Wisconsin’s moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

Even supporters concede the bill is unlikely to lead to a new nuclear power plant in Wisconsin in the near future, though they say it should at least be an option.

State Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, disagreed, arguing the plan will distract Wisconsin from developing renewable energy.

“Our energy needs need to be met without having to accept the significant additional risk associated with nuclear power plants,” he said.

The bill ultimately passed on a bipartisan 23-9 vote, with four Democrats joining all Republicans in voting yes. Walker has said he will sign it.

Senate Republicans also passed two bills that were part of a Republican “property rights” package, including one that would limit the ability of local governments to restrict development. However, they pared down a navigable waters bill by eliminating controversial provisions, including one that would have made it easier for landowners to dredge lakes and another that would have transferred ownership of some lake beds from public to private hands.

Democrats praised the changes but said other provisions scaling back wetland protections went too far. The bill passed on a 19-14 party-line vote.

Bill To Restrict County Executives As Legislators

Some of the sharpest exchanges of Tuesday night’s debates involved a bill that would restrict people from serving as county executive and state legislator at the same time. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said holding both offices created a conflict of interest.

The bill could have implications for Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, who is running for the state Senate seat being vacated by outgoing Republican Sen. Rick Gudex of Fond du Lac.

“This isn’t about the conflict of being a county executive and being a state legislator,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “This is about Mark Harris and nobody else.”

Fitzgerald shot back that it was “wrong” and even “immoral” for one person to hold both jobs in Winnebago County.

“It’s just mind-boggling to me that they wouldn’t have two individuals with the skills and the ability to do that,” Fitzgerald said.

The plan was amended to allow for a 60-day transition period should Harris or any other county executive be elected to the Legislature. Democratic Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee — who is running for Milwaukee County executive — joined Republicans in voting for the bill. Green Bay Republican Sen. Robert Cowles joined all Democrats in voting against.

Among the many other bills to pass the Senate on Tuesday included one that would let landlords serve five-day eviction notices to tenants they suspect are engaged in criminal activity. That measure passed along party lines, as did another bill to help debt collectors sue Wisconsin consumers who owe money.

The Senate also passed a bill Tuesday night that would prohibit towns and villages from issuing their own photo IDs. Cities and villages would be allowed to issue photo IDs, but not for voting or to obtain public assistance. The plan also passed the Assembly.

Another bill that passed the Senate would require state agencies to include cost-cutting plans when they submit their budget requests. Under the bill, agencies would have to submit plans to cut their operational budgets by 5 percent and to hold spending flat.

Assembly Contends With WIAA, WEDC, Photo ID Questions

While the Senate deliberated on its roster of issues, several other bills passed the Assembly and will now go to the Senate.

The most lively debate of Tuesday night’s session centered on a bill that would target so-called “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants. During a session that wrapped up around 2 a.m., some legislators decried the bill as “anti-immigrant.”

“This is an anti-immigrant bill that’s before us,” said Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee. “The fear that is reverberating across the Latino and immigrant communities right now is very sad.”

State Rep. Lisa Subeck of Madison called the bill “race baiting.”

Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, said he introduced the legislation because of an incident last summer in San Francisco in which an undocumented immigrant shot and killed a woman.

“It’s not an anti-immigration bill,” he said. “It’s basically one that says these communities are not following federal rules.”

The bill passed the Assembly 62-35. It will now head to the Senate.

A plan to ban local photo identification cards also spurred passionate discussion during Tuesday night’s debate. Zamarripa said the bill is another anti-immigrant measure, pointing out immigrant populations are among those who have difficulty obtaining state-issued identification cards.

“I think this is frivolous,” said Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. “We are so far off the mark on what we’re supposed to be doing.”

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, the sponsor of the bill, defended the bill by saying it adds necessary clarity to what local ID cards can be used for.

The bill, which passed the Senate earlier Tuesday evening, passed the Assembly 62-35. It now goes to Walker for his signature.

Other bills going to the governor’s desk include a bill authorizing libraries to notify collection agents and a bill to change penalties for repeat OWI offenses.

Plenty of bills also passed without controversy, including five bills sponsored by Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. Those bills will provide funding for treatment and diversion programs, criminalize the sale of synthetic urine — a substance used as a masking agent during drug tests — and allow boards under the state Department of Safety and Professional Services to issue best-practice guidelines for prescribing controlled substances.

The Senate will return to Madison for one more session day in March. The state Assembly is expected to finish its session Thursday.

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