Senate poised to pass mix of divisive and unifying bills, then wrap up for the year

Milwaukee schools break-up on the agenda, but more public school aid appears unlikely

By: - March 8, 2022 6:00 am
Looking up at the Capitol dome from far below right before the entrance door

The Wisconsin state Capitol (Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0)

A proposed state constitutional amendment that would rewrite a decades-old state law and give greater control to the state Legislature over how Wisconsin spends money from the federal government will finish its first round in the Legislature on Tuesday in the state Senate.

The Senate is widely expected to approve the amendment, in the form of a joint resolution that Gov. Tony Evers can’t veto.

Tuesday is expected to be the Senate’s last regular floor session for the year, with more than nine months remaining in 2022.

The resolution, SJR-84, is the lead-off item on a long Senate agenda that mixes some popular and likely unanimous pieces of legislation together with bills on education and other topics that have divided the Legislature along party lines. Those are more likely to be vetoed than enacted, which will send them on to become talking points for both parties in this year’s campaigns for the Legislature and Evers’ re-election bid.

The federal spending measure previously passed the Senate on a party line vote in January. Because the Assembly rewrote portions of it before passing it, also on a party-line vote, it has to go back to the Senate again. According to a Legislative Reference Bureau memo, the changes were primarily made for clarity.

Republicans who have advanced the proposed amendment have argued that the Legislature rightfully has a role in deciding how federal money to the state, such as the pandemic relief funds Wisconsin received in 2020 and 2021, should be spent. Democrats have charged that the proposal would make distribution of those funds more cumbersome at a time when swift action is needed. State laws dating to the 1930s ceded that control to the governor’s office.

After the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was enacted, including a $2.5 billion share for Wisconsin, Republican leaders in the Legislature made repeated attempts to direct how the money would be spent. All of those proposals that made it to the governor’s desk have been vetoed, while other measures to designate projects or priorities for the funds have languished in the legislative process.

After Senate action on Tuesday, the resolution will have to go back before each house in the 2023-24 legislative biennium, then go to the voting public in the form of a ballot question. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who authored the proposal, has said he hopes the referendum would be held in 2024.

Special session stand-off

In addition to the Senate’s regular floor session, Evers has called a special session that begins on Tuesday to debate and vote on legislation introduced to allocate some of the state’s projected $5.5 billion surplus for the 2021-23 budget biennium, including $750 million for public schools, a $150 tax rebate to every Wisconsin resident, an expanded state child tax credit and a new caregiver tax credit.

Since he took office in 2019, Evers has repeatedly attempted to use special sessions to put proposals on the Legislature’s agenda, which is controlled by the Republican majority. Each time the lawmakers have ignored the governor’s appeals, and GOP leaders in both houses have already signaled they would do so this time.

“The Senate will not take up the Governor’s Special Session bill,” said Adam Gibbs, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) via email on Monday.

The apparent rejection of the Evers proposal follows an appeal by a broad coalition of business-related groups and others who last week offered a proposal to aid public schools, similar to, but separate from the governor’s.

The business groups’ proposal calls for boosting average per-pupil spending statewide by $342 and lifting the state’s share for educating students with disabilities to 50%. Together the two would cost less than $700 million, the coalition says in a letter to Evers and the Legislature’s Republican leaders.

Representatives of charter schools and private schools participating in Wisconsin’s taxpayer funded private school voucher system also joined the campaign. The state’s per-pupil payments to both charter and voucher schools automatically rise when payments to the public education system increase.

Regular session

In the Senate’s regular session, the single largest piece of legislation to get a vote on Tuesday will be the next step in closing the state’s troubled youth detention facility for boys at Lincoln Hills — a $42 million bill authorizing a replacement center to be built in Southeast Wisconsin.

The Senate previously passed the legislation (SB-520) unanimously on Feb. 22. In the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) initially indicated the proposal would not be taken up. But Vos reversed himself at the last minute. In the process, the Assembly made an amendment adding some procedural steps to the new facility’s site-selection process, forcing the bill back to the Senate to approve that change.

While the Senate appears poised to ignore both Evers’ proposal for more school funding and the plea from business leaders, the body is scheduled to take up a series of hot-button school-related topics that the governor is virtually certain to veto.

The hottest-button ones include a proposal to break up the Milwaukee Public Schools into four to eight districts (AB-966) and another to end the income cap for parents who want to enroll their children in private schools at taxpayer expense under the voucher programs in Milwaukee, Racine and the rest of Wisconsin (AB-970).

Another proposal that passed the Assembly without Democratic votes (AB-912), would constrain the power of the governor to be selective about closing businesses in a statewide emergency.

Still other proposals on the Senate’s agenda are back for a second time — after some deal-making that may have cleared the way for enactment.

One bill (SB-394) creates a new system of licenses for advanced practice nurses, who have greater autonomy in their work, including the ability to write prescriptions.

The version that originally passed the Senate said that advanced practice nurses could practice without physician supervision or a written agreement with a physician or dentist. An Assembly amendment rewrote that to require a physician or dentist agreement except for advanced practice nurses with at least 3,840 hours of experience, who would have to apply for permission to work independently, or for certified nurse-midwives.

Another bill (SB-573) would allow electric car charging stations to operate and charge a fee without being classified as an electric utility under state law.

Senate Democrats voted against the measure in February, in part because of a provision demanded by the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce that would block local governments from establishing charging stations for the public and charging a fee. The Assembly amended the bill to allow an exception for stations built under grants from the state Department of Transportation as part of the federal infrastructure law enacted in 2021 and if no taxpayer money is used to build the station and the fee income isn’t used to supplement the local government’s budget.

Tuesday’s Senate agenda also includes approving dozens of appointments, primarily to advisory and professional boards, and many of them for personnel appointed by Gov. Tony Evers.

None of the governor’s outstanding cabinet appointments are on the list, however. Nor is Evers’ 2021 Natural Resources Board appointee for a seat still occupied by Frederick Prehn, an appointee of former Gov. Scott Walker whose term has expired but who has refused to leave until a successor is confirmed. LeMahieu told in January that he didn’t expect to schedule any more confirmations for Evers appointees before the election.


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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.