Wisconsin Legislature’s fall session begins slowly

The Associated Press

Wisconsin’s fall legislative session will get off to a slow start, with Republicans in control of both the Senate and Assembly still searching for consensus on major issues like toughening drunken driving laws and imposing new reporting requirements on public and choice schools.

The Assembly canceled its meeting days in September, in part because of the disruption caused by the resignation of Majority Leader Scott Suder, but also because so much remains up in the air. Suder left to take a job with the Public Service Commission.

The Senate plans to be in session only on Sept. 17, when it could act to restrict public access to the proposed iron ore mine site in northern Wisconsin, loosen campaign donation limits and create a new crossbow hunting season.

Other major issues will have to wait until later in the fall as lawmakers and Republican Gov. Scott Walker search for common ground. Even if they find it, some prominent Republicans have little desire to wade into more divisive proposals like a constitutional amendment to give fetuses the same constitutional rights as individuals.

“We have already had three years of contentious politics in Madison,” Republican Senate President Mike Ellis said. “I think the less contentious the better.”

Legislative leaders and Walker – often mentioned as a potential candidate in the GOP presidential primary but also facing re-election in 2014 – seem particularly uneager to get mired in those issues that could become campaign fodder next year, such as legalizing the sale of raw milk and outlawing the sale of fetal body parts.

“We are trying really hard to say ‘What are the issues people are hearing about in their districts that need solutions?’” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said.

He has shown no appetite for taking up more abortion-related proposals, including the personhood constitutional amendment put forward by Republican Rep. Andre Jacque.

“That’s not going anywhere,” Vos said.

Vos was noncommittal about a package of six bills that would toughen the state’s drunken driving laws, including making third and fourth offenses felonies rather than misdemeanors, lengthening prison sentences for repeat offenders and imposing a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for killing someone while driving drunk.

The measures would add tens of millions of dollars in expenses for prosecutors and the state’s prison system. The high cost has been the downfall of similar proposals in the past, including last session.

All six of the drunken driving bills will be up for a committee vote on Thursday. Vos said he asked those working on the bills to find something that could pass, but he’s not sure what that may be.

Vos supports a bill that would raise Wisconsin’s speed limit to 70 mph, but he said it won’t be a priority.

Walker and Senate Republicans have been cool to the idea.

Vos said Republicans are looking into a number of other areas, including mental health and prison reform, changes in the governance of the University of Wisconsin System and addressing Milwaukee crime, but likely won’t have legislation ready until later in the fall.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said Republicans should avoid issues like raising the speed limit and legalizing raw milk because those aren’t topics the public prioritizes.

“Our priorities are what the people’s priorities clearly are, which is to do more to advance job training and economic development and trying to get back to work and trying to strengthen our schools,” Barca said.

On the Senate side, one bill widely expected to pass in September, which already cleared the Assembly in a slightly different form, would legalize a new crossbow hunting season at the same as the archery deer season in Wisconsin.

A school accountability bill that’s been two years in the making but that has found little support among Republicans so far will pass in October or November, said Sen. Luther Olsen, the sponsor.

The Senate was expected to pass a bill that’s already cleared the Assembly that would double campaign contribution limits and allow for online voter registration. A number of other election reform bills have been introduced.

The bill restricting access to the mine site is on a fast track. It was introduced, had a public hearing and was voted out of committee in six days. The bill would close 3,500 acres of land around the proposed mine site in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior to the public.

“I don’t know if we have to do that much,” Ellis said, referring to the number of acres covered. “I think we should do something, but I don’t know what.”