The Assembly dabbles in bipartisanship — then gets derailed

Steps forward on water contamination and mental health in schools, but any warm feelings evaporated quickly

Assembly chambers (photo by Melanie Conklin)
Assembly chambers (photo by Melanie Conklin)

Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) offered his take on the theme of Tuesday’s Assembly floor session an hour before it even began, describing “a pattern … where Democrats offer a more comprehensive solution on a major issue facing the state. Republicans reject that solution, but later, take some action that falls short of what’s actually needed or what has been demonstrated to work.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), also before a roll call took place, predicted a day filled with amicable bipartisan votes on bills authored by Republicans that would address tough issues facing Wisconsinites.

The Democratic and Republican Assembly leaders differing takes were referring to several of the same bills. One was SB 310, which addressed PFAS contamination in drinking water and groundwater by restricting the use of firefighting foam to emergency uses and adding regulations to contain any testing of that foam.

Reps. Dianne Hesselbein and Steve Doyle watch as Minority Leader Gordon Hintz discusses Assembly business on 1/21/20
Reps. Dianne Hesselbein and Steve Doyle watch as Minority Leader Gordon Hintz discusses Assembly business on 1/21/20

This more limited PFAS bill passed on a bipartisan voice vote, but first Democrats attempted in vain to insert their more expansive CLEAR Act, which would additionally establish acceptable standards as well as addressing PFAS monitoring and clean up. Ths bill had been set aside in committee in favor of this “half-measure incremental bill on the subject of PFAS,” as Hintz described SB 310.

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), whose district contains some of the worst known PFAS contamination in the state, said he worked closely with the Department of Natural Resources on this bill, but claimed more scientific information was needed before looking at broad PFAS regulation: 

“PFAS are found in an extensive array of products we have all used. But it’s inclusion in certain firefighting foams that have been proven to be problematic.” However he said he’s currently working with Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and is close to agreement on further bipartisan action.

“We’re having these conversations,” said Nygren. “This should not be a partisan issue…Let’s work towards the next bill Republicans and Democrats can get behind.” The bill was approved and now goes to Gov. Tony Evers for his consideration.

Mental health in schools

The second major issue Hintz described as “half-measure, incremental moves” was a one-county pilot program to address severe mental health services in schools. (He also cited homelessness, with just one of eight homelessness bills passing the Senate.) 

The Republican measure, AB 644, aimed at alleviating the mental health crisis in schools, is limited to Outagamie County.

Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Speaker Robin Vos talk to media before the Assembly session on 1/21/20
Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Speaker Robin Vos talk to media before the Assembly session on 1/21/20 (Photo by Melanie Conklin)

“Let’s start a little smaller and see what we can do for the 35,000 kids in Outagamie County,” said Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), the bill’s author whose district includes much of the county. “It’s an important first step. We have to develop a framework.” 

Steineke’s pilot passed unanimously and moved to the Senate for a vote. But not before Democrats brought forward bills that would take a broader approach, adding $22 million in categorical aid to schools statewide for mental health and $14 million in grants to school districts collaborating with community health services.

Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) said when she traveled the state as part of a Blue Ribbon task force on education, the group heard from “every school, everywhere” that they were desperate for funding to address skyrocketing mental-health needs. “We don’t need a pilot, we know perfectly well what works,” she said.

The Assembly passed Steineke’s Outagamie pilot bill with overwhelming bipartisan votes and sent the measure to the state Senate for a vote in that body.

 

Assembly’s rough start

The first item of business in the State Assembly had been through the committee process, generating little controversy and attracting bipartisan votes. (Gov. Evers has said bipartisan votes are one requirement he considers when he determines which bills  he will sign into law.)

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee) was on her way to the Capitol when she got a phone call from her staff letting her know that a bill she had voted for in committee and would be voting on again in about an hour had just become controversial.

Described by Vos as a healthcare access bill, AB 26, facilitates direct primary care agreements, allowing a patient (or their representative or employer) to have a contract for primary-care services by that provider and have it be exempt from insurance law. 

“That’s better healthcare, it’s better for the patient, it’s a better quality of life. Isn’t that what we all want?” said Sanfelippo to media before the session. 

But over the weekend, he had an amendment drafted that would eliminate the non-discrimination clause that was in the bill. The original clause prohibited a health-care provider from discriminating against patients on the basis of age, citizenship status, color, disability, gender or gender identity, genetic information, health status, existence of a preexisting medical condition, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or any other protected class.” 

The amendment, which was adopted along strict party lines, eliminated the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of citizenship status, gender or gender identity, genetic information, national origin and sexual orientation. 

Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said he requested more time to find a better solution to this amendment so it could still be palatable to Democrats and secure Evers’ approval.

“In 1982 sexual orientation was added to our non-discrimination laws — we were the first state,” said Spreitzer, describing the amendment as a step in the opposite direction. “You just said, ‘Leave the gay people out of it, leave transgender people out of it, leave the immigrants out.’” 

Zamarripa agreed it was a step backward: “I’m horrified that Assembly Republicans would pass a bill allowing discrimination against Wisconsin’s immigrants, many of whom already have difficulty accessing affordable health care.”

Sanfelippo countered that some doctors told him there was no other place in state healthcare law that cites nondiscrimination language, a point the Legislative Reference Bureau backed up. “This language puts DPC doctors operating at a disadvantage,” Sanfelippo said. The bill — with some elements of a non-discrimination clause but with the LGBT and immigrant communities left out — moved forward on a strict party-line vote of 61 – 36.

HOPE in the Assembly

Vos’ predicted bipartisan cooperation surrounding big issues facing Wisconsin also came to pass. 

One of the best examples were six more bills that were part of the HOPE Agenda (Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education) spearheaded by Nygren, who has been working on the issue for six years and has been open in sharing his daughter struggles with addiction. 

Rep. John Nygren on the Assembly floor after six bills in his HOPE agenda combating opioid abuse passes on 1/21/20.
Rep. John Nygren speaks to colleagues after six bills in his HOPE agenda combating opioid abuse pass on 1/21/20. (Photo Melanie Conklin)

“This has been a multi-year package of 30 bipartisan bills, that could be 36 bipartisan bills,” Nygren said. “This action will cement Wisconsin’s reputation” as a leader in addressing the opioid crisis, he added. 

The bills address what Nygren called “two big challenges” facing addicts who are being treated for opioid addiction — helping them find  stable housing and employment, allowing for prescription drug monitoring, permitting coverage under Medicaid for physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture and removing barriers to peer recovery coaches. Additionally there would be greater access to naloxone to counter overdoses in jails, protection for state employees who enroll in a medication-based opioid treatment programs and an extension of the 911 Good Samaritan Law.

“Unfortunately, my family’s situation is not unique,” Nygren said. He then read a letter of thanks from a constituent who first heard about the HOPE measures at a time when she was using up to 2 grams of heroin per day, and trying to die. The letter concluded with her words: “Now I’ve been 3 years and 8 months clean and sober.” 

The Assembly then passed AB 651 on a resoundingly loud “aye” vote.

 

Back to square one

Session ends with Assembly Joint Resolutions — often recognizing a person or holiday or celebration before adjournment.

While the Assembly debate had calmed down after the initial heated battle over discrimination language, and even become collegial during the HOPE votes, any civility was cast aside for a symbolic resolution.

The resolution was AJR-118, authored by Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls) and it declared Jan. 22 — the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion — as “Protect Life Day.”

All the tensions and partisan feuds were ignited with raised voices and harsh accusations.

Issues tossed around with heated rhetoric went from the typical, partisan abortion arguments into feuds that were completely off topic including homelessness, Black Lives Matter, spotted owls, sea turtles and even former Ag Secretary Brad Pfaff’s crusade to secure mental health vouchers for farmers.

“Motherhood is under assault,” declared Brandtjen. “Motherhood is a gift and without this next generation of children, Wisconsin will not survive.”

A half hour later the resolution passed with a partisan 63 ayes and 35 nos.

And then, as people packed up their files and returned laptops to cases, AJR 199 declaring American Birkebeiner Week in Wisconsin passed unanimously.

As did the motion to adjourn.

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.