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Wisconsin Republicans move to amend constitution as Assembly session winds to a close

Proposed amendments on places of worship, federal money, emerged from COVID-19 pandemic

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The statue on top of the Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin state Capitol. Angela Major/WPR

In what’s expected to be the state Assembly’s final session day this year, Wisconsin Republicans approved two proposed constitutional amendments that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under one, churches and other houses of worship would not have to close their doors during future pandemics, while the second would give the Legislature more power over how to spend federal funds.

The resolution on places of worship is a response to a state public health order in place during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited. It would change the religious freedom section of the Wisconsin Constitution to exempt houses of worship from state of emergency orders at the national, state or local levels, covering events such as severe weather, political unrest or public health emergencies.

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Rep. Ty Bodden, R-Hilbert, who authored the proposal, said it was a matter of separating church from state. 

“I’m sure like in the past, if there’s an emergency that arises, Mr. Speaker, places of worship will make the right decision for their body. They’ll know what’s best for their safety,” he said on the floor Thursday. “If (an) emergency arises, no one is being forced to go to church or their place of worship.”

No Democrats spoke before the plan passed on party lines, 63-33, but at a committee hearing on the bill last summer, critics argued it could undermine public health.

The measure already passed the state Senate. As a proposed constitutional amendment, it would have to be approved again in the next legislative session and then be approved by voters to take effect. Unlike bills that pass the Legislature, it is not subject to a governor’s veto.

The federal funding amendment would require a joint committee of the Legislature to approve how Wisconsin state government spends federal dollars, and comes after years of fighting among Republican state lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers over allocation of emergency COVID-19 funds. Right now, that power rests solely with the governor in Wisconsin.

It passed for a second time, 61-35, on Thursday, meaning it heads next to voters in November.

Bills passed to fund UW building projects, ban DEI loyalty pledges

Assembly Republicans also made good on the final part of a deal struck in December with the Universities of Wisconsin that released pre-approved funding for employee pay raises and building projects in exchange for new limits on campus diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, known as DEI. 

With a vote of 95-2, the Assembly passed a bill authorizing funding for several UW building projects, including a new $347 million engineering building at UW-Madison, which had been rejected by Republicans last year. It also authorizes funding for new buildings at the UW-Whitewater campus and utility upgrades at universities around the state. The bill now goes to Evers desk for a likely signature.

But in a clear sign Republican pushback against DEI initiatives is far from over, the Assembly passed another bill Thursday which bans state colleges and universities from requiring students and employees to sign  DEI “loyalty pledges.”

Under the bill, colleges and universities would be banned from making hiring or promotion decisions based on whether someone has “pledg(ed) allegiance” to “any political ideology or movement, including a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion.”

That legislation now goes to the state Senate.

During a press conference ahead of the Assembly’s floor session, Rep. Clint Moses, R-Menomonie, said Republicans “had a bit of a standoff” with the UW system regarding DEI. He said the bill up for a vote would “eliminate DEI from our campuses” by barring the pledges, which he said are still required and causing “some of the divisiveness on our campuses.”

“As a business owner, it’s important to invite all customers into my business,” Moses said. “And I think when the UW system is struggling to have students and the numbers are declining, it’s important that they are open to all of our students, regardless of their political ideas.”

The Assembly also passed bills that tweak a longstanding tuition reciprocity agreement between Wisconsin and Minnesota, which allows students to pay in-state tuition while attending college in their neighboring states. Specifically, the legislation allows any excess tuition revenue from Minnesota students to go to the Wisconsin campus they attend rather than the state’s general fund.

A GOP bill requiring colleges and universities to offer waivers for students who object to being vaccinated for “health, religion, or personal conviction” also passed the Assembly and now heads to the Senate.

GOP bill aimed at Eau Claire refugee resettlement heads to governor

After heated debate, lawmakers also sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would require the federal government or nonprofit organizations to inform local elected officials of plans to resettle refugees within 100 miles of their communities.

The GOP plan was introduced after a move to resettle 75 refugees — comprising about 20 families — in the Eau Claire area was made public. Rep. Karen Hurd, R-Fall Creek, told WPR earlier this year local officials were caught off guard by news of conversations between Eau Claire city officials and World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization.

“This bill is not about the pros and cons of refugee resettlement. It is not about whether we have the infrastructure. It is about a representative republic,” Hurd said during debate Thursday. “This bill is just asking for the elected officials at the state and local level to have a seat at the table.”

The proposal would also require local governments to hold public hearings about proposed refugee resettlement and to pass resolutions in support or opposition to those plans.

Democrats blasted the proposal as xenophobic. 

“This is legislating hate. This is legislating discrimination,” said Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison. “It is mapping out a pathway to have some of the most exclusive, and probably hateful, people have the biggest platform to deny folks who are seeking resettlement — who are wanting to build homes in Wisconsin.”

The bill passed the Assembly 62-35. It passed the state Senate Tuesday.

Emergency room funding bill heads to Evers

The Assembly passed a bill aimed at shoring up emergency hospital services in Chippewa and Eau Claire Counties.

It was introduced after Hospital Sisters Health System announced it will close HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.

The measures authorize $15 million in grant funding for other hospitals in the region to expand their emergency room departments in anticipation of additional demand from patients. 

Bills on electric vehicles advance

Lawmakers passed two bills Thursday involving electric vehicles.

One would exempt electric vehicle charging stations from being regulated as utilities. The other would authorize the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to establish and fund an EV infrastructure program.

The changes were required to unlock around $78 million in federal funds to build out a state  electric vehicle charging network. 

“There is demand for electric vehicles. They’re on the road. And I believe people should generally be able to make that choice,” said Rep. Nancy VanderMeer, R-Tomah. “These proposals are important because they take an important first step in providing infrastructure for consumers who have made that choice.”

Republicans amended one of the bills late Thursday to ban local governments from requiring private developers to install electric vehicle charging stations as a condition of receiving a building permit. A City of Madison ordinance requires some multi-family residential buildings and commercial developments to install EV chargers at a small number of parking spots.

Both bills passed the Assembly Thursday on near unanimous votes. The funding bill heads to the governor’s desk while the other heads back to the Senate.

More education bills pass Assembly

Lawmakers also approved a slate of education policies that would create more positions within the Office of School Safety, expand the types of organizations that can license teachers, and update apprenticeship programs.

The apprenticeship proposal expands awards that are given to people who complete skilled apprenticeships, including for youth apprentices; allows apprentices to claim a certain tax credit during their program; incentivizes construction apprenticeships; and requires other incentives to support students going into training for the trades.

Busy day could be Assembly’s last in 2024

While the Wisconsin Senate plans to return to Madison in March, Thursday was expected to be the final Assembly session day of 2024. With that self-imposed deadline looming, Assembly lawmakers: 

  • Passed a Republican bill creating a grant program for local governments and landowners to address PFAS pollution. It now heads to Gov. Evers, who has indicated he may veto the proposal because it limits the authority of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 
  • Voted to establish a task force to address violence against Black women and girls. That bipartisan bill must also pass the Senate before it can go to Evers’ desk.
  • Expanded the Silver Alert system, currently used to share information about a missing senior citizen, to include certain minors with disabilities.   
  • Passed a Republican bill barring the DNR from holding an antlerless-only deer hunting season in northern Wisconsin and limiting antlerless deer tags to hunters. Bill authors say the legislation will help increase the deer population in the region, which will lead to more opportunities for hunters to harvest deer in future hunting seasons. 
  • Passed a bill requiring cell phone companies to provide a customer’s location information to police without a warrant. It now heads to the Senate. An amendment added to the bill also requires customers be notified within 30 days when their location information is obtained by police. Supporters of the bill say bypassing warrants will speed up response times for officers responding to life-threatening situations.