Legislature Votes to Put Bail, Welfare Reform on Spring Ballot

Among the first measures to pass both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature this year were two legislative resolutions that will put questions before voters. Both resolutions passed the Senate on January 17 and the Assembly two days later, largely but not entirely along party lines. Both questions will appear on the next statewide ballot, the state spring election on April 4, which will also feature a race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a special election in Senate District 8, and many local and nonpartisan races such as judges and school boards.

Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 2 would amend the Wisconsin Constitution with respect to bail and pre-conviction release for people accused of a crime. It would give the Legislature the authority to determine additional conditions for denying pre-conviction release. It would also eliminate the requirement, with respect to violent crimes, that monetary bail may only be imposed to assure an accused’s appearance in court. Instead, it would give judges more discretion in imposing bail on people accused of violent crimes.

The Legislature approved the constitutional amendment for the first time during the 2021-22 session. Amendments to the Wisconsin Constitution must pass both houses of the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then be approved by a majority of voters on a statewide ballot (the governor is not involved in this process).

Last week, the Legislature also passed SJR 4, which will place an advisory referendum on the April ballot. It will ask voters whether able-bodied, childless adults should be required to look for work to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits. This referendum is strictly advisory, and its outcome will not have any effect on state law. The concept of the referendum is related to a bill from last session that would have prohibited most adults without disabilities or dependents from remaining on the state Medical Assistance (Medicaid) program after turning down a job offer. The proposal was part of the “Stronger Workforce” package of bills that were advanced by Republican legislators and vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers (D).

As a counter to these Republican-led ballot measures, Gov. Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul, and Democratic legislators proposed adding an advisory question on whether the state’s 1849 criminal abortion law should be repealed. This idea was promptly rejected by Republican leadership.