Assembly approves bail amendment, welfare work requirement for April ballot

By: - January 20, 2023 6:30 am

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said during a Thursday press conference that the referendum could lay the ground for the resurrection of other GOP-authored work requirement bills that were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers last session. Photo by Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner.

Wisconsin Assembly lawmakers passed two measures Thursday that voters will see on ballots in April, when they go to vote in the competitive election for the state Supreme Court.

The first measure is a proposed constitutional amendment that will change the way bail is set by judges in Wisconsin, and the other is a nonbinding advisory referendum that will ask whether people receiving welfare benefits should be required to work. Both measures cleared the final hurdle before they go to voters, having passed the Senate on Tuesday

The welfare work requirement referendum and bail constitutional amendment could boost conservative turnout in the spring election, which will decide the ideological balance of the Supreme Court. Conservatives on the court currently hold a 4-3 majority.

The proposed bail constitutional amendment passed 74-23 with 12 Democrats joining Republicans in favor. It would eliminate the requirement that bail be set only to ensure that people appear in court, expanding what judges could consider when setting bail. Judges could consider other factors like defendants’ past convictions and the need to protect the public from bodily harm in “violent crime” cases.

“We’re making a common sense change to give judges all the information they need when setting bail for a violent offender,” Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield) said during a press conference. “Right now, in the state of Wisconsin, how you set bail is you look at what kind of monetary incentive you’re going to need to ensure their appearance in court, you don’t take into account the dangerousness to the community and you don’t take into account their past criminal convictions.”

Several Democrats were concerned that the proposed amendment as written doesn’t define terms like “violent crime” and “serious harm”. Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) — who voted in favor of the resolution — proposed sending the amendment back to committee during the floor session, so the terms could be defined. That motion was denied. 

Duchow, who co-authored the resolution, said a definition for “violent crimes” and “serious harm” will be released in a couple of weeks. 

“We’re talking about violent crime. This is not for shoplifting. This is not for stealing a car, but it is for carjacking,” Duchow said during floor debate. “Violent crime is defined in statute in three different places, and we will redefine that before the ballot on April 4th. We’ll also define ‘serious harm.’ Currently, that stands for serious-bodily harm, so murder or the threat of murder.” 

Other Democratic lawmakers said the resolution will further exacerbate economic disparities in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system. Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee), explained his vote against the resolution in a statement: “Today’s proposed joint resolution would lead to even greater disparities in our criminal justice system, further creating a two-tiered system to reward folks that have and punish people that have not.”

Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) argued the amendment doesn’t go far enough to address the problem with the bail system. He said Wisconsin should instead be looking towards pre-trial detention —  a hearing before trial for the purpose of determining if the continued detention of the defendant is justified — rather than relying on money bail

“If release is determined by an amount of money, there are some individuals that will be able to come up with that money and buy their way out. We have a system that could prevent that called pre-trial detention,” Goyke said during floor debate.

Duchow said the pre-trial detention doesn’t work, and that Wisconsin doesn’t have the physical or financial resources to rely on that policy. 

The Assembly also passed a nonbinding advisory referendum 62-35, along party lines. It will ask voters the question, “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?”

Wisconsin currently requires unemployment beneficiaries to complete four work searches per week. There is also a work requirement for Wisconsin Foodshare — or food stamps —  although that requirement was waived on Oct. 1, 2020, and the waiver will continue “until at least the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said during a Thursday press conference that the referendum could lay the ground for the resurrection of other GOP-authored work requirement bills that were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers last session by showing voter support for putting people to work.

Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi) said during floor debate that since work requirements are already in state law, they just need to be enforced. He also spoke about a bill he introduced last session that would require people to accept interviews or accept job positions, if offered, in order to receive their benefits. 

“There’s already state law, so maybe we should start enforcing it and get those people back to work rather than just going through the motions of applying for the minimum number of jobs to receive their benefits,” Plumer said. 

After the Senate passed the referendum on Tuesday, Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) singled out the lack of work requirements for Medicaid as something that lawmakers might address. Wisconsin was enforcing a work requirement for those benefits, until the Biden Administration revoked a policy in 2021, prohibiting states from enforcing a work requirement for people receiving Medicaid benefits.

Vos emphasized this on Thursday, saying that the advisory referendum will compel the federal government to reconsider current policies that restrict states from implementing work requirements to qualify for Medicaid. 

“At the federal level, we are still seeing a very slow weaning off of all the public benefits that were given during the course of the pandemic, even though, again, we have a record number of job openings and fewer people to fill those positions,” Vos said during his press conference in the Capitol. “We know the federal government has not allowed us to have that waiver for Medicaid, so folks who are on Badgercare are not required to look for work. That is something that we hope to dramatically change.” 

Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said the advisory referendum was “politically motivated” during her opening remarks and called on the Assembly to replace it with an advisory referendum about Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban on the April ballot. 

“We have the opportunity to discuss and work toward solutions for everyone in Wisconsin, but we need to put aside our differences and come together for our communities. To start, we would suggest an idea proposed by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, and put the question of whether or not Wisconsin’s 1849 criminal abortion ban should be repealed to the people of our state,” Neubauer said during the floor session. “I believe that the people of Wisconsin would say they want this abortion ban to be repealed, but their voices deserve to be heard.”

Democrats proposed substituting the welfare work requirement referendum question with the abortion question, but Republicans shut the question down. Senate Democrats proposed the same resolution on Tuesday, which also failed.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.