Senate votes on guns, vaccines, China

Floor session mixes occasional harmony with recurring division

By: - February 16, 2022 6:00 am
Elephant Republican and Donkey Dems with lightning in front of flag Image by chayka1270 from Pixabay

Image by chayka1270 from Pixabay

On a day in which topics ran from firearms on school grounds to COVID-19 vaccination, the longest debate in the Wisconsin Senate Tuesday focused on three bills that the author purported were needed to help the University of Wisconsin stave off threats from China — help that the university has already told the Legislature amounts to an unnecessary burden.

The trio of bills, which passed with only Republican votes, were emblematic of a three-hour floor session in which the Senate swung between unanimous votes and votes that split nearly always on party lines, as lawmakers took turns passing workaday legislation that was broadly supported and measures that appeared mainly crafted for political campaign talking points.

Unanimity, or something close to it, reigned as the Senate passed legislation to double the statute of limitations for second-degree sexual assault charges to 20 years; revise the state’s procedures for issuing new license plates; waive sales taxes for nonprofit groups selling entertainment event tickets; revise the state’s lobbying and campaign finance laws at the request of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission; and authorize the state to make grants to promote dairy exports.

Division, although often without debate, arose over broadband expansion, electric charging stations, firearms, vaccines — and China.

Target: People’s Liberation Army

The China bills all focused on the UW System. SB-742 would prohibit the university system from admitting or hiring anyone belonging to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). SB-744 would outlaw Chinese foreign missions at any UW institution. SB 745 would require disclosure of contracts or gifts connected with foreign sources; it would subject university personnel to still closer scrutiny if those sources are tied to China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, North Korea or Syria.

state Senator Roger Roth headshot
State Sen. Roger Roth

“No country today poses a greater threat to our national security and economic prosperity than China,” said Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), the author of the measures, before the Senate voted on the first of the three bills. “The FBI and other agencies have warned universities about such threats and have made recommendations to tighten security. By and large, universities and governments have been slow to respond.”

At a Dec. 15 Senate public hearing, the UW System submitted a statement and a report describing work it had already undertaken to identify and prevent “undue foreign influence” throughout the system. “We believe the changes included in these bills will significantly increase the amount of administrative burden on UW institutions, particularly due to system limitations and staffing,” a second statement said.

In the Senate debate Tuesday, Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), called the bill to forbid hiring members of the PLA “insulting” to the U.S. State Department and other federal agencies, including the CIA and the FBI. It suggests that “we in this legislative body can somehow do their work better than they,” Bewley said. “I think that we can stay in our lane, do our job, and allow other people who have the training, the expertise, the reputation, the respect and the responsibility to protect us from influences abroad that may do us harm.”

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) warned that all three measures would likely worsen “an alarming increase in hate crimes” targeting Asian and Asian American people in the U.S. and Wisconsin. The additional burden on the university and its researchers from the bill “is going to lead to an even further exodus” of researchers from the system, he added.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Photo from state legislature website.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach

Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) dismissed the legislation as stoking a false impression infiltration by operatives for the Chinese government “is happening in campuses all over Wisconsin. It’s not! It’s simply not happening!”

And Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Kenosha) recalled that in the 1990s, the UW received half of its budget from the state. “Now 15% of the budget of the UW comes from this body,” Wirch said. “Yet we insist on micromanaging that great school.”

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) defended the legislation. “We’re not talking about the university system being not good enough,” Darling said. “We’re talking about our university system being vulnerable to these attacks by the Chinese in order to get our intellectual property.”

All three bills passed along party lines, with 20 Republicans voting in favor and 12 Democrats opposed.

Broadband, charging stations and truck drivers

Republicans and Democrats also divided on legislation for broadband internet to establish charging stations for electric vehicles. Both topics have broad, bipartisan interest. But because of details in the specific bills, Democrats refused to support them.

SB-365 changes the Public Service Commission (PSC) program of broadband internet expansion, which has provided $72.5 million in grants to underserved and unserved parts of Wisconsin since 2013.

Photo by Discover Savsat on Unsplash

The new legislation directs grants only to “unserved” areas, and redefines the term to mean places lacking at least “100/20” service — download speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps.

That definition for “unserved” “may prove to be too inflexible in the near future,” said Matt Sweeney, the PSC’s public affairs director, at a Feb. 2 public hearing.

The bill also allows internet service providers near a grant recipient to block a grant by promising to build the needed infrastructure and provide the service to that area within two years.

The bill passed on another 20-12 party-line vote. Before the vote there was no Senate debate on the bill — just a lone, and unanswered, critique from Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick).

“The honeymoon is over for broadband expansion in Wisconsin,” declared Smith. He said the bill would effectively prioritize increasing speeds for people already getting service at the expense of providing broadband service where there isn’t any yet. “Many of the communities I represent were last to receive electricity in the ‘30s, and they are considered not profitable by many broadband internet providers today.”

SB-573 allows the owners of charging stations to charge a fee for their use without being regulated as a public utility. After it was introduced with bipartisan support, the bill was amended to forbid state or local government agencies from owning a charging station available to the public.

The change came after Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce opposed the original bill. The business lobbying group, in a statement filed when it registered its position with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, objected to “taxpayer subsidization of state and local governments to compete with private sector businesses for retail charging stations.”

While that change won over WMC and other corporate lobbyists, it turned several supporters of the original legislation against the bill, including the city of Madison, the Wisconsin Towns Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Without discussing the legislation, the Senate voted 19-13 to pass it. Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) was the sole Republican to join the dozen Democrats who voted ‘no.’

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Another business-related bill, SB-703, would let trucking companies that use drivers who are independent contractors maintain that status even if the company provides the driver with equipment, technology or training intended to comply with federal safety regulations. The legislation would prevent state authorities from reclassifying those drivers as employees.

Neither public hearings nor ethics commission filings listed any opposition to the legislation. Worker advocates say that many truck drivers are misclassified as independent contractors and should be considered employees instead. 

A trucking company lawyer, however, gave testimony at the legislation’s public hearings that he has cautioned clients not to provide independent contractors with the same safety technologies and training that employees receive so as to avoid their reclassification as employees. 

After an amendment passed without any Democratic support, Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), the bill’s author, lamented the partisan division.

“We need those independent people to work for these trucking companies that we all know have supply chain problems,” Cowles said. “If we force these people to become employees, many of them are going to quit. Why would we want to do this?”

His question went unanswered as the bill’s 20-11 vote proceeded. Erpenbach, whose resume lists “truck driver” among a variety of jobs he has held, abstained.

Firearms

Again on party lines, the Senate concurred with AB-495, which would allow people who have a concealed carry permit to have a gun in a vehicle on school grounds. The bill passed the Assembly Jan. 20 on a voice vote; a Democratic amendment there to add required background checks for gun sales and concealed carry permits failed on a party-line vote.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson

“I understand that some people think that because this pertains to a concealed carry permit that these individuals will be somehow more responsible,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee). “But the reality is that more guns, especially on the grounds of our schools, do not make our children safer.”

Before the 20-12 vote, Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), who authored the Senate version of the bill, professed surprise at any opposition. Other states, including Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have similar laws, he said, and the purpose is “seeking to help parents who, again, have concealed carry permits, to be able to pick up and drop of their kids [if the weapon] stays in the vehicle unseen to anybody else — simply allow for those who are law abiding to do the right thing.”

Vaccines

Over the course of Tuesday’s session, the Senate passed six bills, all aimed at weakening mandates for COVID-19 vaccines.

On a party-line vote without debate, the Senate voted 20-12 to pass SB-547. The bill declares that a person who quits a job rather than getting a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, or who is fired for refusing to get one, would not be disqualified for receiving unemployment benefits.

The measure is an exception to legislation Republicans have advanced over the last decade — including a series of pending bills in the current session — making it more difficult for people laid off from work to qualify for and maintain unemployment compensation.

Two vaccine bills passed on voice votes. SB-707 would specify that a person discharged from the military for failing to get a required vaccine would still qualify as a veteran for state preferences and benefits. Under SB-708, if a person is fired or quits a job for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine and would normally be bound by a non-compete clause, that restriction would be nullified.

SB-721 would qualify a person for workers compensation who is reported to have been injured by an employer’s required COVID-19 vaccine. It passed on a 20-12 party-line vote without debate. And on another 20-12 party-line vote, also without debate, the Senate concurred with the Assembly’s AB-299, which would bar government or businesses from requiring that a person show proof of vaccination in order to be served.

The last of the vaccine-related bills was AB-675, requiring that employers accept a person’s previous infection with COVID-19 as a substitute for a COVID-19 vaccine or repeated negative tests for the novel coronavirus.

Sen. Chris Larson

Larson, who noted that he has had COVID-19, alluded to the vaccine bills that had preceded it. “We’ve seen a slew of bad bills rolling through here,” he said. “That we are spending our time in this body not passing one, not two, not three, but six bills — six bills — to put a pat on the back for those who refuse to do their part in getting vaccinated and spreading anti science rhetoric and galvanizing it into state statute or at least trying to.”

The Milwaukee Democrat rattled off the names of health organizations from the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association to the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Medical Society and several public health groups, all of which had registered their opposition to the bill.

“These are not political organizations,” Larson said. “They’re organizations that are interested in making sure that our neighbors and us are as healthy as possible and making sure that we are getting through this pandemic.”

To pass “all of these awful bills,” he added, was to “coddle an extremist and selfish base that refuses to do the bare minimum of doing something that helps not just them, but their neighbors.”

Sen. Mary Felzkowski

Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), the Senate author of the legislation, said she had COVID-19 when the delta variant was spreading and took ivermectin upon the recommendation of a doctor. She also said she subsequently got the omicron variant and had no symptoms, while her husband got sick at the same time and, she said, was successfully treated with ivermectin.

“Watching other countries, very developed countries with advanced scientists also accepting natural immunity, and to accuse those with natural immunity of not doing their part [is] very arrogant, in my opinion,” Felzkowski said.

“People should get vaccinated — it saves lives,” Larson said in his response. “And I would love to hear a retort to the fact that 99% of those who are experiencing the worst symptoms are those who are unvaccinated. And those who are dying are 99% unvaccinated.”

When Larson was finished, the vote followed: All 20 Republicans for the bill, and all 12 Democrats against it.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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