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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Is the End Near?

Wisconsin Legislature closes out final scheduled floor session

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The legislative session that began with a bang is ending with a whimper.

The state Legislature's formal general-business floor session will conclude March 15 with most of the game-changing legislation already passed last year by the Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate. Special sessions and extraordinary sessions can still be called.

Since January 2011, Republican lawmakers have gutted public employees' right to collectively bargain, made historic cuts to public education, passed one of the most restrictive voter ID bills in the country, enacted concealed carry with a lax permitting system, expanded a voucher school program that lacks accountability, and raised taxes on the poor while offering tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Republican leaders also are implementing a legislative redistricting map that will likely cement a Republican legislative majority for the next decade.

Still on tap are major bills on iron mining and education “reform,” although their passage is in doubt as we go to press, as well as minor bills that could have a wide-ranging impact on policies such as why a public official could be recalled from office and whether wolves should be hunted in the state.

Job Creation: Mining and Venture Capital

Although Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011 with the promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, the state shed private-sector jobs for the last six months of the year, each month since his controversial biennial budget was passed. New job numbers will be posted this week, which could be make-or-break data for a governor who will likely face a recall election in the next few months.

After providing tax cuts and incentives to businesses and manufacturers, and replacing the state's Commerce Department with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., Republicans had focused their job-creation efforts on a controversial strip-mining operation in northern Wisconsin and a venture capital bill to spur investment.

Both bills appear to be stalled, if not dead.

The mining bill is so mired in controversy that Walker has suggested calling a special session to pass it if the Legislature can't get it done during the regular floor period.

As of this writing, Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) hadn't agreed to the latest bill offered by Republican leaders. That bill has received the support of some unions, who believe the promises of mine owners to hire union employees for the mine's construction and operation.

Since two Republican senators lost their seats in recall elections last summer, Schultz is the deciding vote on the bill in the state Senate, where Republicans have a 17-16 majority.

Republicans had also debated a venture capital bill that they said would boost investment in the state. But that bill appears to be dead, since Senate and Assembly Republicans couldn't agree on its terms and now argue that since the state is expected to have a $143 million budget deficit, there isn't enough money to go ahead with the plan.

Education 'Reform' Lacks Accountability

Also on tap is the Republicans' version of education reform. Walker has touted his “Read to Lead” program as a way to improve reading scores and teacher accountability in the state's public schools. But the bill exempts taxpayer-funded charter and voucher schools from testing requirements, even though Walker had promised to increase transparency and accountability by including charter and voucher schools on a common report card.

The debate over voucher schools is also cropping up in other bills to be debated this week.

Republicans had expanded the voucher system to multiple cities beyond Milwaukee in its budget, although legislators said they only wanted to offer vouchers in Racine. Legislation intended to close that loophole is still up in the air.

Lawmakers are also battling over a bill that would increase voucher payments for students with disabilities who want to attend religious or private schools. Critics say that the bill doesn't require schools to provide adequate services or certified teachers for these special-needs students, and that it merely props up unaccountable private schools with public dollars.

Family Care, Recalls, Supreme Court and Wolves

Lawmakers are also expected to debate a range of bills that have nothing to do with job creation:

  • Family Care: The state Assembly was poised to vote on lifting the Family Care enrollment cap on Tuesday. The measure passed unanimously in the state Senate in February. The cap on this popular program for disabled adults was implemented in the Republican-led budget bill, but the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services ordered the Walker administration to lift the cap.
  • Recall Standards: State Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) is the chief sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult to recall an elected official. Currently, state residents do not have to state a reason why they are recalling a public official. Vos' amendment would only allow public officials to be recalled if they are charged with serious crimes or have violated the state's ethics code. The amendment would need to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and ratified by Wisconsin voters. Two Republican senators were recalled last summer, and Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican senators will likely face recall elections this summer.
  • Supreme Court Justice: Signaling their displeasure with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, GOP lawmakers are proposing a constitutional amendment that would change the way the chief justice is selected. Currently, the chief justice is the justice with the most seniority. The amendment—which would need to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and by Wisconsin voters—would direct the court to elect a chief justice each time a justice is elected or re-elected.
  • Wolf Hunt: Now that the gray wolf has been taken off the endangered species list, the Legislature is fast-tracking a bill that would allow wolves to be hunted throughout the entire state between Oct. 15 and the end of February. Those holding a Department of Natural Resources-issued “wolf harvesting license” could use firearms, bows and arrows or a crossbow, as well as dogs, to hunt wolves.
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