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From voucher school funding to concealed carry on campuses, GOP senators have unresolved issues in Madison

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly say they finished their work for the two-year legislative session on Feb. 18, but things aren’t going to quiet down at the state Capitol.

Senate Republicans plan to return for at least one more day in March. They’ll have to decide whether to take final votes on several bills that passed in the Assembly last week. Some other contentious measures that neither chamber has touched need action or they will die, too. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, didn’t immediate respond to a message inquiring about Republicans’ plans.

Here’s a look at the most notable legislation the Senate faces as well as some of the bills in limbo:

IN THE SENATE

DRUNKEN DRIVING: The Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would strip repeat drunken drivers of their licenses for at least a decade.

DEMENTIA CARE: The Assembly approved a 10-bill package designed to help people cope with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The package, developed by a task force Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created, would devote more money to dementia specialists, research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the state’s Alzheimer family and caregiver support program.

‘SANCTUARY CITIES’ BAN: The Assembly passed a bill that would prohibit municipalities from banning police from asking about someone’s immigration status if they’re charged with a crime. The bill and a companion proposal that prohibits local governments from issuing identification cards drew about 20,000 protesters, most of them Latino, to the Capitol on Feb. 18. Tanck told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the bill was “not a high priority” for Senate Republicans, suggesting they are unlikely to take it up.

COLLEGE AFFORDABILITY: The Assembly passed a set of bills Republicans say are intended to help college students with debt. The proposals include plans to lift the cap on tax-deductible student loan interest, boost grants for technical college students and two-year students in the University of Wisconsin Colleges, create internship coordinators and require colleges to update students annually on their debt levels. Democrats say the bills are little more than GOP campaign talking points and won’t do much to contain student debt.

VOUCHER SCHOOL FUNDING: The Assembly approved legislation that would limit public school districts’ ability to recoup their losses when students leave for schools in the state’s voucher program. The program subsidizes private school tuition. The state pays for it by cutting aid to public schools that lose students to the program. Under language in the state budget, districts can recoup those losses and more by raising property taxes. The Assembly proposal would allow districts to raise taxes enough to recoup only actual losses.

IN LIMBO

FETAL TISSUE RESEARCH: Republicans have drafted a bill that would ban research using tissue from fetuses aborted after Jan. 1, 2015, and prohibit the commercial sale of such tissue. Researchers say the measure would chill work on life-saving cures and treatments. Neither house has voted on it. Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, has said such research should continue. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a big Republican supporter, also opposes the bill. If the Senate were to pass the measure the Assembly would have to return to concur. That seems unlikely. Vos told reporters the Assembly won’t come back to deal with any new issues.

TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS: Another GOP bill would require public school students to use bathrooms and locker rooms assigned to their physical gender at birth. The bill’s authors argue Wisconsin needs such a law to create a unified standard. Neither house has taken up the bill; Fitzgerald has said he thinks individual schools should deal with the issue as they see fit. Even if the Senate were to vote on the bill, the Assembly would have to return to concur.

GUNS ON SCHOOL GROUNDS: Several Republicans support a bill that would allow people with concealed carry permits to carry their guns on school grounds. Vos said in January the bill was going nowhere in his chamber, saying he hasn’t heard anyone clamoring for it, and neither house has voted on it.

CONCEALED CARRY IN UNIVERSITY BUILDINGS: Another GOP bill would let people carry concealed weapons in university classrooms, buildings and stadiums. That measure has gone nowhere in either house amid scathing opposition from UW System leaders.

Twin toilets photo from Sochi goes viral

At least one Olympic bathroom seems to be flush with toilets.

When BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg went to use the bathroom at the cross-country skiing and biathlon center for next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, he found two toilets but only one stall.

His tweeted picture instantly became a national joke.

Although toilets like that are not common in Russia, social media users posted photos of other side-by-side toilets, including ones in a courthouse and a cafe.

The editor of the state R-Sport news agency said such communal toilets are standard at Russian soccer stadiums.

“Why are the BBC folks scaring us?” Vasily Konov wrote in this personal Twitter account. “This is what the gents look like at football stadiums in Russia.”

He posted a photo showing two urinals and three toilets in a large room.

Russians jested that the toilets in Sochi were designed for a “tandem,” the name used to describe the duo of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. One popular blogger altered Rosenberg’s photo to put in a framed portrait of the two leaders above the toilets.

In a nod to the tight security measures imposed in Sochi for the Winter Olympics, another joke has it that the second toilet was for a Russian security officer.

The Sochi organizing committee refused to comment on the picture. The games run from Feb. 7-23.

Group sues California over new law protecting transgender students

Groups trying to overturn a new California law allowing transgender students to choose public school restrooms and sports teams that correspond with their expressed gender filed a lawsuit claiming state officials are unfairly refusing to count signatures seeking a referendum.

Sacramento-based Privacy For All Students, a coalition of right-wing groups, filed the lawsuit against the secretary of state and two counties.

It says a courier delivered signatures collected in Tulare ahead of a deadline of Sunday, Nov. 10, but offices were closed early before the three-day Veterans Day weekend. In Mono County, a courier dropped the signatures in a county mail slot a day before the deadline, but workers did not return to their jobs  until the deadline had passed, according to the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs say the secretary of state’s office is refusing to validate the signatures from the two counties.

The secretary of state’s office did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Opponents of the law that goes into effect on Jan. 1 said they have collected enough signatures for an initiative that would repeal it. Counties, however, were still reviewing the signatures.

The state previously said an early random sampling from counties via the secretary of state’s office found only 77 percent of the signatures qualifying.

The coalition submitted 620,000 signatures to get the initiative on the November 2014 ballot, said Frank Schubert, political strategist handling the signature gathering effort.

To qualify, at least 505,000 valid signatures of registered voters must be verified through a random sampling. After that, it is likely the state would order a full review before the measure could be place on a ballot.

NOM leading charge to overturn transgender student rights law

The anti-gay group formed to oppose marriage equality across the country is now leading the campaign to overturn a California law that requires public schools to allow students to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities based on self-perception of gender instead of birth gender or transition status.

The National Organization for Marriage announced it was working with another conservative group, the Capitol Resource Institute, to repeal the law at the ballot box. The anti-gay marriage group provided early fundraising and organizing for the 2008 ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriages, known as Proposition 8. Much of the funding for that campaign came from Catholic and Mormon organizations.

Opponents of the transgender student rights law have until Nov. 8 to gather the signatures of 504,760 registered voters to place a referendum on the November 2014 ballot that would nullify the statute.

NOM is encouraging its members to help circulate petitions and to give money that could be used to hire professional signature-gatherers.

The political strategist who ran the anti-gay Proposition 8 campaign, Frank Schubert, has signed on to manage the referendum push. Schubert said “it’s a virtual certainty” the campaign will hire paid petition-circulators to supplement work already going on at churches statewide.

“We are actively talking with donors about helping to fund that,” said Schubert, who has also served as NOM’s national political director. “A referendum is a very hard thing to do. It’s definitely an uphill thing.”

After passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, Schubert led campaigns to block same-sex marriages in Maine and to pass a constitutional amendment similar to Proposition 8 in North Carolina. He then oversaw four unsuccessful efforts to keep same-sex marriage from being legalized in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

California last month became the first state to spell out the rights of transgender K-12 students in state law when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB1266. Supporters said the law will help reduce bullying and discrimination against transgender students. Families of transgender students have been waging battles with school districts across the country over what restrooms and locker rooms their children can use. The disagreements have sometimes landed in court.

Equality California executive director John O’Connor, whose organization co-sponsored AB1266 and helped lead the campaign to defeat Proposition 8 in 2008, said civil rights groups were closely watching and would be ready to respond if the proposed referendum makes the ballot.

“Frank Schubert has built a political career on these anti-LGBT measures that divide people and perhaps years ago he had some success,” O’Connor said. “We have turned the corner. The public is solidly in favor of LGBT equality now.”

Schubert said qualifying the referendum for the ballot will be difficult, but he thinks it would pass easily if put before voters.

“This is not a law people support by a long-shot,” he said. “This is an attempt to hijack an issue that may be legitimate for a small number of people and use it to impose a statewide mandate in pursuit of a larger political agenda … to strip society of all gender norms so there is no difference between men and women.”

California lawmakers pass K-12 transgender-rights bill

California lawmakers approved a bill this week that would require public K-12 schools to let transgender students choose which restrooms they use and which school teams they join.

Some school districts around the country have implemented similar policies, but the bill’s author says AB1266 would mark the first time a state has mandated such by statute.

Existing state law already prohibits California schools from discriminating against students based on their gender identity, but the legislation that passed the state Senate on July 3 spells that out in more detail, said Carlos Alcala, a spokesman for the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco.

At least two others state, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have statewide policies guaranteeing the same protections, but neither policy is in statute, according to the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.

The issue has become a battle in some local school districts around the country. A Colorado family filed a complaint with the state’s civil rights office in March, claiming that their local school had violated the state’s non-discrimination laws. The family had been told that their transgender first-grader could not use the girl’s bathroom and would have to use the restroom in the nurse’s office or the teachers’ lounge.

California’s bill would give students the right “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” based on their gender identity.

It sparked an impassioned debate on the Senate floor about when transgender students’ right to expression might conflict with other students’ discomfort and right to privacy.

Supporters said the bill is needed to protect students from bullying and other abuse. They also said it represents the next front in their effort to provide equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, just days after same-sex marriages resumed in California.

“There should be certainty that every kid has the chance to go to school and be treated equally and fairly,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who carried the bill in the Senate. “We know that these particular students suffer much abuse and bullying and denigration. We can’t change that overnight, but what we can do is make sure that the rules are such that they get a fair shake.”

Opponents said the state is going too far if it permits opposite-sex students to use restrooms and locker rooms.

“It is not all about discrimination. Elementary and secondary students of California – our most impressionable, our most vulnerable – now may be subjected to some very difficult situations,” said Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen.

Parents, school administrators and school board members would have no say over students who identify themselves as transgender and enter shower rooms or bathrooms used by the opposite sex, Nielsen said, warning that the privilege could be abused.

“Think about the millions of California parents and students who at the least would be extraordinarily uncomfortable with what this bill would impose upon them,” Nielsen said.

Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, and Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, claimed male athletes who are mediocre in competition against their own gender could game the system by competing against female athletes.

“There are kids out there that are struggling, that are having difficult times,” Knight said. “But there are also kids that are going to take advantage of the system.”

Nielsen and Knight voted against the bill, while Wright was among eight members of both parties who did not vote. Wright also worried that schools could eliminate football and other contact sports if they faced increased liability by letting girls play.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said several major California school districts have had similar policies for years covering thousands of students.

“To date there’s been no single reported incident of any misconduct,” Lara said. “Let’s not confuse silly behavior issues with sensitive gender identity issues.”

The Senate passed the bill on a vote of 21-9. It previously passed the Assembly and now goes to the governor.

A spokesman for the Democratic governor said the administration would not comment on pending legislation.

Oregon County requiring unisex bathrooms

Oregon’s most populous county is requiring that gender-neutral bathrooms be included whenever a county-owned building is constructed or remodeled, a move to accommodate transgender employees and visitors.

Multnomah County board Chairman Jeff Cogen signed the executive order earlier this week. The Portland-based county is among the first local governments in the nation to have such a rule. It was patterned on legislation recently approved by the city of Philadelphia and was inspired by a local high school that earlier this year designated six single-occupancy restrooms as unisex.

It’s not known how many of the county’s 4,500 employees are transgender. County officials, however, say the directive will make life better for those who are uncomfortable using restrooms labeled “women” or “men.”

“What we have is complaints; people who just tell us their stories,” said Kalissa Canyon-Scopes, policy director for the county’s Office of Diversity and Equity.

Those stories include transgender employees who rush home at lunch to use the bathroom, find a business with a single-occupancy toilet or hold it in all day.

Addie Jones, program assistant at Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, said some transgender residents avoid eating and drinking to lessen their need to use a public bathroom. For them, Jones said, it is preferable to the intimidating looks and embarrassing questions (“Excuse me, don’t you know you’re in the wrong restroom?”) they get when entering a bathroom assigned for people who don’t look like them.

The order is not expected to cost much money. The county only one has one construction project in the pipeline, a new Multnomah County Health Department headquarters that will employ 250 workers and include clinics for the public.

The county will also assess its 120 existing buildings to see if they include gender-neutral bathrooms. If they do, signs will be added to alert employees and the public.

In the county’s main building, for example, there are traditional men’s and women’s restrooms on the first floor, but single-toilet bathrooms are on four of the other five floors.

Rather than construct a new bathroom on the first floor, the level most used by the public, the county simply put up a sign that states: “Gender neutral restrooms located on floors 2, 3, 4, 5.”

“That has a very significant practical impact, but not a very significant expense,” Cogen said.

Oregon high school creates gender-neutral bathrooms

Portland’s largest public high school has reclassified six bathrooms as unisex to create another option for students and faculty who might feel uncomfortable with traditional bathrooms.

The move is a first in the district and relatively uncommon nationwide for K-12 schools. The school has as many as 10 transgender students.

Transgender Grant High School student Scott Morrison says he stopped drinking water at one point so he wouldn’t have to choose between gender-specific bathrooms.

Now, Morrison says he doesn’t have to struggle with the choice. Four student bathrooms and two staff restrooms, all single-stall, were part of the conversion.

“It’s a godsend,” Morrison said.

Kristyn Westphal, the Grant High vice principal who helped lead the initiative, said administrators acted after counselors raised concerns.

“We just need to make sure that all students are safe and comfortable here, and that they have their needs met,” Westphal said. “If they feel unsafe using the bathroom, that’s a problem.”

Michael Silverman, executive director of New York-based Transgender Legal Defense, said the issue of transgender rights will continue to grow.

“What we are seeing is the beginning of one of America’s next big civil rights challenges,” Silverman said.

At Grant High School, officials designated smaller bathrooms throughout the school as “unisex” in February. For restrooms containing two bathroom stalls, officials installed interior locks to prevent multiple students from using them at the same time.

The conversion cost less than $500.

Sasha Buchert, communications manager of Basic Rights Oregon, called the change “a really wonderful partnership between student advocates trying to create a safe space for transgender and nonconforming students and the school system to find a solution that will ensure folks can go to school and focus on learning.”

Others, while supporting the change, also worry that equating single-stall unisex restrooms with the transgender population can be stigmatizing. Jenn Burleton, the executive director of TransActive, said most transgender students simply want to use the restroom of their identified gender.