Both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature met on February 22 for floor sessions to vote on bills and resolutions. Below, we review a few notable items that passed each house that day.
The Senate passed 64 bills and eight resolutions, including SB 520, which authorizes almost $42 million in general fund-supported borrowing to build a new juvenile correctional facility in Milwaukee County. This facility will replace the troubled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools in Irma, which house male and female juvenile offenders, respectively. The project has been in the works since the enactment of 2017 Wisconsin Act 185, which required the Department of Corrections to begin a program to replace the facility but did not provide funding or bonding authority. The existing facilities in Irma have been controversial because of high-profile violent incidents and ongoing reports of safety concerns from staff.
Voting mostly along party lines, the Senate passed the “Stronger Workforce” package, a group of seven bills authored by Republican legislators intended to get more Wisconsinites into the labor force. The package includes a bill that would index the maximum weeks of eligibility for unemployment benefits to the state’s unemployment rate. Another bill would prohibit most adults without disabilities or dependents from remaining on the Medical Assistance program if they turn down a job offer. The bills previously passed the Assembly on February 17; we covered the package in more detail here.
The Senate passed a package of 13 election reform bills, also by mostly party-line votes. One bill would adjust state laws on absentee ballots, while another would require the Wisconsin Elections Commission to work with the state Department of Transportation (WisDOT) to compare the state’s official voter registration list with personally identifiable information maintained by WisDOT. A third proposal would provide whistleblower protections to municipal clerks who witness and report fraud or irregularities during an election. Gov. Tony Evers (D) has previously promised to veto any bill that, in his view, would make it more difficult for people to vote in Wisconsin.
The Senate also addressed measures relating to law enforcement and criminal justice. The chamber passed two bills requiring data collection and reporting on the use of “no-knock” search warrants and the use of bonds and cash bail in criminal cases. The Senate also approved several bills that would create or adjust penalties for crimes, including impersonating a public official or utility employee, committing multiple coordinated thefts, and committing multiple acts of retail theft. Two other bills would provide grants to enhance crisis programs and purchase body cameras for local law enforcement.
Notable among the resolutions approved by the Senate was Assembly Joint Resolution 107, a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would add factors that a judge could consider when setting bail for a defendant accused of a violent crime. It passed the Senate 23-10 after clearing the Assembly 70-21 on February 15. In each house, a handful of Democratic members joined all Republicans present in voting for the resolution.
Under the proposal, judges could consider the seriousness of the alleged offense, the criminal record of the accused, and the risks of further harm to the community and of possible witness intimidation if a defendant were released pretrial. Currently, the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits excessive bail and provides a right to pretrial release in all but the most serious cases, and bars judges from considering any factor other than assuring the defendant’s appearance in court when setting bail.
If the resolution passes the Senate before the end of this session and the Legislature passes the same resolution next session, then the issue will appear on the ballot as a referendum during the next statewide election. The proposal will become part of the state’s constitution if a majority of voters approve it.
The Assembly passed 39 bills and two resolutions. The chamber’s calendar was heavy on bills related to education, including a proposal to break up the Milwaukee Public Schools into several smaller school districts. The Assembly also passed a bill that would eliminate the income and pupil participation limits in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, essentially expanding school choice statewide.
Two other bills affecting the parental choice programs were approved, as well as two bills relating to charter schools. Other education-related bills passed by the Assembly included measures addressing reading readiness assessments, reading test licenses, and pupil promotion based on reading test scores.
The Assembly passed six bills specifically affecting the University of Wisconsin System, mostly addressing minor issues. Notably, one bill would eliminate liability protections for certain campus administrators found to have violated the expressive rights of an individual under Article 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution. The Assembly also approved five bills affecting family law, including two bills that passed the Senate the same day.
See the articles below for more coverage of recent legislative issues in Wisconsin: