The Senate and Assembly have adjourned their last regular sessions for 2013. Both houses had busy agendas as they moved to get bills passed before the end of the calendar year.
Elections and Politics
The most contentious issues involved elections – from voting to recalls and redistricting. Party line votes and long debates were abundant. While the Senate kept out of the fray, the Assembly has took up several bills that would modify the election process:
Assembly Bill 54 would limit the times for voting by absentee ballots in person to 7:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Assembly Bill 202 provides that election observers be given space at the registration tables where voters register or within three feet of those tables. Observers would also be required to sign and date a log book at the polling location.
Assembly Bill 419 would only count votes for write-in candidates under certain circumstances.
Assembly Bill 420 would require signers of nomination papers and petitions to print as well as sign their name.
Assembly Bill 493 exempts certain electors from the requirement that voters present proof of identification when voting in an election and allows for the use of veterans identification cards as proof of identification.
Recalls have been a hot topic in Wisconsin since the Act 10 inspired recalls. Assembly Bill 128, which passed the Assembly on a party line vote, would require that the attempted recall of a municipal or school district officer be linked to a crime charged.
The Assembly also adopted Assembly Joint Resolution 25, which would amend the state constitution to limit recalls to situations where an elected official has been charged with a serious crime or if there is probable cause that the official has violated a yet-to-be created state code of ethics. As this is a constitutional amendment, it would need to be passed by both houses in two consecutive sessions and then ratified by the state’s voters.
During debate on the bills above, Democrats urged Republicans to take up Assembly Bill 185, which would put redistricting in the hands of the Legislative Reference Bureau under the direction of a non-partisan Redistricting Advisory Commission. Though the bill has yet to receive a hearing, Democrats attempted to bring it to the Assembly floor for a vote; that motion, however, failed on a 39-54 party-line vote.
Chief Justice Selection
Senate Joint Resolution 57, which would change the way the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is selected, has been passed by both houses of the state legislature, but it still has a long way to go before becoming the law of the land.
The current process for designating the chief justice is specified by Art. VII, Sec. 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution, which provides, “The justice having been longest a continuous member of said court, or in case two or more such justices shall have served for the same length of time, the justice whose term first expires, shall be the chief justice.”
Having been appointed to the court in 1976, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson is currently the longest serving justice and has served as chief justice since 1996.
SJR 57 would instead provide that the justices on the high court elect their chief justice for a two-year term, with each justice limited to three consecutive two-year terms.
The proposal is a joint resolution instead of a regular bill since a change would require an amendment to the state constitution. To be successful, joint resolutions must be passed in two consecutive sessions of the legislature and be approved by a vote of the electorate.
Civil Justice Reforms
Assembly Bill 139, which amends Wisconsin’s current law regarding the duty of physicians to inform patients of treatment options has passed both houses and awaits the governor’s signature. The legislation was introduced in response to a 2012 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision (Jandre v. Wisconsin Patients and Families Compensation Fund, 2012 WI 39 (2012)), where the court implemented a “reasonable patient” standard even though the statute did not include such a standard.
Assembly Bill 139 overturns the court’s “reasonable patient” standard and replaces it with a “reasonable physician” standard. The reasonable physician standard requires disclosure only of information that a reasonable physician in the same or similar medical specialty would know and disclose under the circumstances.
The legislation also requires a physician to inform the patient about the availability of “reasonable alternate medical modes of treatment” instead of “all alternate, viable medical modes of treatment.”
Drunk Driving Laws
Wisconsin has long been ranked among the worst states in the nation for drunken driving and binge drinking. In an effort to tackle the issue without dramatically increasing the state’s enforcement budget, the Assembly passed a package of three bills:
Assembly Bill 67 requires all persons accused of violating traffic laws and ordinances related to driving while intoxicated to appear in person in court. Under current law, most first-offenses are municipal violations that are treated similar to a speeding ticket, where it is unnecessary for the offender to appear in court.
Assembly Bill 68 would make all second OWIs criminal misdemeanors subject to a fine of $350 and require up to five days in jail. All fourth offenses would be treated as felonies subject to a minimum fine of $600 and between six months and six years in jail. Current law provides for lesser penalties if the previous offence(s) occurred a certain number of years prior.
Assembly Bill 467 would prohibit people required to install ignition interlock devices on their cars from driving any vehicle without such a device until their period of monitoring is over.
The three bills have been referred to the appropriate Senate Committees for consideration.
Economic and Workforce Development
Reaffirming the message that members of both parties are committed to improving the state’s economy and creating a climate for job creation, both houses passed a number of bi-partisan workforce development bills by large margins. Each of these bills now awaits the governor’s signature.
Senate Bill 274 increases the amount of state funds appropriated to the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) for a joint federal-state program that provides vocational rehabilitation serves to persons with disabilities. Under the bill, DWD would get an extra $1,826,200 for fiscal year 2013−14 and an additional $2,030,700 for fiscal year 2014−15, which will be matched by additional federal funds.
Senate Bill 331 establishes a new grant program to promote career and technical education in the state’s high schools. Under the program, school districts can receive $1,000 grants from the Dept. of Public Instruction when students complete approved training programs and then proceed to graduate from high school.
A pilot program for training unemployment insurance claimants new job skills will be tested under Senate Bill 332.
Senate Bill 334 creates a Technical Excellence Higher Education Scholarship Program which would award scholarships based on proficiency in technical education subjects. The number and amounts of scholarships awarded, the duration, the conditions for continued receipt of a scholarship, and the institutional match requirement are the same as under the Academic Excellence Higher Education Scholarship Program.
Two bills encouraging apprenticeship also passed both houses. Senate Bill 335, which has been signed into law as 2013 Wisconsin Act 57, creates a tuition reimbursement program for apprentices and employers. Senate Bill 336 increases funding for an existing youth apprenticeship grant program.
Both houses also acted on a special session bill introduced at Gov. Walker’s request. Special Session Assembly Bill 4 increases the Wisconsin Supplemental Historic Preservation Credit to 20 percent of qualified rehabilitation expenses. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature, but should be in place before the end of the year.
Two bills that have passed the Senate will be awaiting Assembly action when the members return in 2014. The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 223, limiting access to the personal internet accounts of employees and applicants for employment, students and prospective students, and tenants and prospective tenants. The Senate also passed Senate Bill 338, which would allow towns to create tax incremental financing (TIF) districts. Currently, towns are only allowed to create TIF districts under certain limited circumstances.
Utilities and the Environment
2013 began with a vote on mining and it continues to be a topic of great interest. A bill that would restrict public access to managed forest land that is located in a proposed mining site, Senate Bill 278, is now awaiting the governor’s signature. The bill is a response to incidents of trespassing by mining opponents at the proposed mine site in the Penokee Hills.
Also awaiting the governor’s signature is Senate Bill183, which allows areas covered by county shoreland zoning ordinances to be re-zoned if they are annexed by, or incorporated as, a city or village.
In response to issues brought up in a report from the Speaker’s Task Force on Mental Health, the Assembly passed a slew of mental health related bills during one of its last floor sessions for the year:
Assembly Bill 435 Admission of minors for inpatient treatment.
Assembly Bill 450 Grants for crisis intervention team training.
Assembly Bill 452 Child psychiatry consultation program.
Assembly Bill 453 Uses and disclosures of protected health information.
Assembly Bill 454 Creation of a primary care and psychiatry shortage grant program.
Assembly Bill 455 Grants to counties to contract for peer-run respite centers.
Assembly Bill 456 Reporting on county performance on providing core mental health services and requiring the exercise of rule-making authority.
Assembly Bill 457 Providing grants to counties that offer treatment and diversion programs to people with mental illnesses.
Assembly Bill 458 Mental health benefits and reimbursement for mental health services under the Medical Assistance Program.
Assembly Bill 459 Individual placement and support program for employment of individuals experiencing mental illness.
Assembly Bill 460 Grants to mental health mobile crisis units.
Assembly Bill 488 Involuntary commitment proceedings and limited appearance by corporation counsel.