Senate GOP passes tax cut, abortion bills and transgender restrictions in contentious floor session

By: and - October 18, 2023 5:15 am

Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) criticized Republicans’ bill to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors at a press conference on Oct. 17, 2023. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

The Wisconsin Senate’s Republican majority passed their rewrite Tuesday of workforce legislation that Gov. Tony Evers proposed in August, leaving nothing of Evers’ original bill and guaranteeing its eventual veto.

That vote came first in a cluster of contentious debates over legislation destined for the governor’s veto pen. It was followed by a confrontation over abortion and, as the day-long floor session neared its end, an emotional argument over a bill  restricting the rights of transgender and nonbinary children and their parents.

The workforce legislation was part of a Sept. 20 special session that Evers had called to take up his $1 billion proposal. On Tuesday, the Senate’s Republican leaders reopened the special session and, in a series of party-line votes, dispatched the governor’s plan for child care support and other workforce support initiatives. 

With the first vote, the GOP majority rejected an attempt by Democratic senators to re-seize control of Evers’ original bill. With the second, the Republicans replaced the governor’s plan for child care, paid family leave, higher education support and workforce development programs with a $2 billion tax cut, additional tax breaks and a bundle of measures taking aim at unemployment insurance and at the state’s occupational licensing agency.

“To address the workforce shortage in Wisconsin, we don’t need to grow the size of government … or make pandemic-era subsidies permanent,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) promoting the substitute amendment he submitted Friday for Evers’ bill.

Instead, he said, “we need to attract talented people from other states, retain the ones that we have here and get more people off the sidelines and into good family supporting jobs.”

LeMahieu spoke after the Senate voted 22-10 against the Democrats’ attempt to rewrite his rewrite, restoring Evers’ proposal and adding to it a $200 tax rebate for 4 million Wisconsinites. 

“Rather than passing policies that are overwhelmingly supported by Wisconsin’s good people, our bosses,” said Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison), “provisions that would make Wisconsin be a place where people want to put their roots down, want to stay, maybe move here and raise their families here, in a place where folks want to live, work and play, what we see is Republicans and the legislature engaging in culture wars to appease their extreme base.”

LeMahieu’s rewritten bill passed 22-10. And with that, the special session that Evers had ordered in August was history.

Three Republican abortion-related bills pass

Lawmakers passed three bills 22-10 that would update the state’s 1849 abortion law and provide support to pregnancy crisis resource centers and adoption in Wisconsin.

The bills were part of Republicans’ “Embrace Them Both” package, which has the support of Wisconsin’s major anti-abortion groups. The last bill in the package, which would have allowed taxpayers to claim fetuses with a heartbeat for a tax exemption and increase the amount that taxpayers can claim for every dependent from $700 to $1,000, did not make it to the floor on Tuesday.

The Senate passed the bills as a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Josh Kaul challenging the state’s 1849 law makes its way through the courts. Planned Parenthood recently restarted providing abortion services following a ruling from a Dane County judge that said the 1849 law  applies to feticide not abortion. That action has led to anti-abortion groups calling for district attorneys to begin enforcing the law, which the groups insist applies to abortion.

SB 343 would update the state’s 1849 law to redefine abortion and say that abortions do not include a physician’s performance of a medical treatment intended to prevent the death of a pregnant woman and not designed or intended to kill the “unborn child”. It specifically names the removal of a miscarriage and an ectopic, an embryonic or molar pregnancy as exceptions. 

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) criticized the legislation for trying to change the definition of abortion and said abortion is part of basic medical care for anyone who can become pregnant.

“We all need to have the option of abortion available to us, and we need our medical care providers to be free to do their jobs, to obey the highest ethical standards and to save our lives and our health, in some cases using abortion to terminate a pregnancy,” Roys said. 

SB 345 would provide $1,000,000 in each fiscal year to Choose Life Wisconsin, a program that provides grants to pregnancy resource centers, which counsel pregnant women not to have abortions There are more than 70 pregnancy resource centers throughout Wisconsin, according to Choose Life Wisconsin.

Roys criticized each of these bills. She said that SB 345 would provide money to organizations that mislead, coerce and provide misinformation to women. 

“Crisis pregnancy centers — these anti-choice anti-abortion disinformation centers — do things like use Google AdWords to try to make people think that they provide all options pregnancy counseling,” Roys said. “They try to get people who are seeking abortion providers into their doors so that they can hold them there, deliver propaganda and confuse, delay or target them with misinformation.”

Roys added that she believes people should be able to choose to go to, work at or volunteer in pregnancy resource centers, but that she doesn’t support public money going towards them. 

“Have you ever stepped foot in a pregnancy resource center?” Sen. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron), the bill’s author, asked Roys. 

Roys said she visited one in downtown Madison many years ago, and that she saw deceptive language, advertising and signage at the center.

Quinn followed up by describing some of the services, including baby care packages, safe sleep programs, classes and resources, that the centers may provide. He said that there are no Planned Parenthoods in his district, but there are two pregnancy resource centers that aren’t funded by the state and barely hold on. 

“Believe it or not, not every person in this state is going to have an abortion,” Quinn said. “For those that choose to have their kids, why not support them? Why does an organization have to offer abortion, in order to be able to support them?”

SB 346 would dedicate $5 million to establish a program that would award a grant to one organization that could help provide financial assistance to families interested in adoption.

Roys introduced an amendment to the bill that would have required that organizations that receive grants do not discriminate on the basis of various characteristics including race, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, national origin, disability, religion, ethnicity, marital status and family status. It also would have required that organizations that provide pregnancy counseling also provide counseling on all other options, including abortion.

The amendment was rejected by Republicans, and the bill passed as is with Republican support.

The bills will likely face a veto threat from Evers should they pass the Assembly, though they have yet to make any movement there.

Banning gender-affirming medical care for minors

Wisconsin Senate lawmakers concurred with AB 465, which would ban minors from receiving gender-affirming medical care on a party-line vote. Republicans in the Assembly passed the bill last week, so it will go next to Evers, who has vowed to veto the bill on several occasions.

The bill is one of several bills targeting transgender people that Wisconsin Republicans have introduced in recent months. The Assembly also passed two bills that would bar transgender girls at a K-12 and college level from participating in girls sports. The hearings on the bill in the Senate and the Assembly were marked by strong testimony from members of the public, including transgender Wisconsinites and their families, who opposed the bill because of the impact it could have on transgender youth.

Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), who chairs the Legislative LGBTQ+ Caucus, said during floor debate that the bill is “one of the most harmful ones” that lawmakers will encounter the entire session.

“This bill would not only ban puberty blockers and gender affirming hormones, it would force some teens who are currently taking hormones to stop leading to devastating physical and mental health consequences,” Spreitzer said. “This bill is nothing short of cruel. Legislators should not interfere in private decisions between patients, their doctors and, when they’re minors, their parents.”

The bill specifically would ban physicians from administering puberty-blocking drugs, testosterone or estrogen and from performing surgeries including mastectomies and any procedure that “sterilizes an individual” for the purpose of “changing the minor’s body to correspond to a sex that is discordant with the minor’s biological sex.” 

Spreitzer said during floor debate on Tuesday that one of his best friends in college and his maid of honor at his wedding was a trans woman. He said that he was there to support her through her transition.

“I got to see and talk with her about exactly how much those gender affirming hormones meant, how much they improved her mental health, how much they improved her sense of self, and she happened to figure out that she was trans and begin transition as an adult,” Spreitzer said.

A 2023 national survey by the Trevor Project on the mental health of LGBTQ young people conducted found that one in three LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation. Another recent study found that gender-affirming medical interventions were associated with lower odds of depression and suicidal thoughts over 12 months. 

“But there are so many young people, who because they are in supportive environments, are figuring that out younger and younger,” Spreitzer added. “The least we can do is make sure that they get the medical care that they need, and the medical support that allows them to be who they are, to have the best mental health outcomes, to have the best physical health outcomes.” 

Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), the bill’s author, said during floor debate that children’s brains aren’t fully developed and that they act impulsively and are less likely to consider the consequences of their actions. 

“This is the underpinning of laws that prohibit children from joining the military, getting a tattoo, signing a contract, buying alcohol or buying tobacco and those are regardless of the parents’ opinion on those issues,” Stroebel said. “Medically unnecessary and permanent body altering procedures should not be performed on anyone under the age of 18.” 

Stroebel said there isn’t consensus among medical professionals in support of gender affirming care for minors and insisted that current medical opinions on the issue could change in the future.

The bill is opposed by many of the state’s major medical groups. The Wisconsin Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Medical College of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association have registered against the bill, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Only two groups, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action, are registered in favor of the bill.

“We’re not talking about some impulsive decision. We’re not talking about some teenager going out with their friends and doing something stupid,” Spreitzer said, responding to Republican lawmakers. “As some of my colleagues pointed out, there is serious psychological evaluation, multiple visits to multiple health professionals that happen before somebody receives gender affirming care.” 

Veto override 

Tuesday’s Senate floor session began with the 22 Republicans voting to override one of Evers’ partial vetoes on the state’s 2023-25 budget in July. Evers’ veto changed a $50 million housing rehabilitation revolving loan program into one providing grants or forgivable loans instead. The homeowners that the program was supposed to help “already struggle to afford rehabilitation or renovation projects in their homes to deal with lead, mold, and other safety or structural issues,” Evers wrote.

Republicans said the change Evers made with his veto surprised them after the legislation was crafted with bipartisan negotiation and support. By changing the revolving loan to a grant program the funds go “out the door and never comes back,” said Stroebel.

“We want  to help as many people as we can,” said Quinn. “We don’t want to just give money to people who can then turn around and potentially sell their homes and pocket those profits that now aren’t helping their neighbors.”

Advanced Practice Nurses

Legislation that would give specialized nurses with extra training a license to practice on their own without a physician collaborator passed the Senate 23-9. Republicans, except for Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), voted for the bill, SB-145 , and were joined by two Democrats, Roys and Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee). The rest of the Democratic caucus voted against the measure.

The legislation would create a new, separate license for an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Licensed APRNs would have to meet certain standards for training and then be able to practice on their own after a preliminary period of years. 

Similar legislation has had some bipartisan support in previous sessions, and a bill passed in 2022, but was vetoed by Evers.

“This is not a conservative bill. It’s not a liberal bill,” said Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), noting that similar legislation has passed in 27 states, some heavily Democratic and others heavily Republican. “All it simply aims to do is allow advanced practice nurses to do the job they were trained to do, at the highest level of their license, taking care of patients.” 

The legislation doesn’t replace doctors, Testin said. “This is a supplement. We live in a state where nearly 1 million Wisconsinites live in underserved areas as it relates to health care providers. This helps solve that.” 

The bill requires supervised practice for two years before an APRN can begin practicing independently. Some of the Democrats offered an amendment that included extending that time to four years, but it was defeated. 

Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) said requiring a four-year period of supervision was important to ensure they have needed preparation. “Doctors in their specialities sometimes have four to seven years” of clinical training, she said. “They’re being watched before they can go out on their own. And that’s why for APRNs I do feel four years is appropriate.”

The legislation has support from nursing organizations, several colleges with nursing training programs and other organizations, but uniform opposition from organizations representing medical doctors.

Abolishing teen work permits 

Without debate but on a vote that mostly fell along party lines, the Senate passed SB-436, abolishing Wisconsin’s work permit law for 14- and 15-year-olds. The legislation was backed by some business groups and opposed by worker rights advocates. Supporters said it created unnecessary red tape for teens wanting to work and their parents, and implied that school or government officials were blocking permits that parents wanted on behalf of their kids.

Opponents of the bill pointed out that work permits gave parents the right to decide whether or not their children were ready to take a job. A restaurant lobbyist also recommended that if the permit requirement is eliminated, the legislation should be amended to require a document for young workers and their parents to sign that would list restrictions on what kind of work they are allowed to do.

The bill passed 21-11 with only Republican votes. Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) joined all 10 Senate Democrats who were on the floor Tuesday in voting against it.

The Wisconsin Senate took action on several other bills on Tuesday.

  • Senators passed a bill, SB 331, that some have said would help modernize Wisconsin law, but that others have said could impact privacy and potentially open the door to wider surveillance. The bill would expand the definition of “pen register” and “trap and trace device,” which are two types of wiretapping devices. The bill would also allow the attorney general or a district attorney to apply for a court order for a pen register or trap and trace device from the circuit court for any county. The bill passed 20-12 with Stroebel joining Democrats against. 
  • A bill that would allow several school districts to benefit from recently adopted low revenue ceiling adjustments passed 31-1. SB 395 would eliminate a provision that says school districts that have a failed referendum are not allowed to get an increase in revenue for three years following the referendum. The provision is currently keeping 19 school districts from being able to increase their revenue. Jacque was the only lawmaker to vote against the measure. The bill will need to be passed by the Assembly before it could go to Evers for signing. 
  • SB 111, which expands the definition of “strip search” to apply to when someone is “naked or underwear-clad,” passed in a voice vote. The bill, authored by Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), was introduced in reaction to a 2022 incident where a Suring School District employee allegedly ordered six teenage girls to undress down to their underwear in search of vaping devices. Wisconsin law currently says that it is a Class B misdemeanor for a school district official or employee to “strip search” a student when their private areas are exposed. 
  • A bill, SB 127, that would require hospitals adopt policies that require written and verbal informed consent from patients who are under general anesthesia or unconscious before pelvic exams are performed, passed in a voice vote.
  • SB 290, which would implement requirements for third-party food delivery services like Uber Eats, Doordash and Grubhub, passed in a voice vote. The Assembly concurred in the bill later in the day. It will now head to Evers’ desk.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly state the vote count on SB 331.


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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.

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.