Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday that he’s open to the possibility of legalizing medical marijuana, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he opposes such a move.
Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan provide some form of legalized medical marijuana to citizens who require it to control pain, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical conditions. Over the past decade, there have been several attempts to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes in Wisconsin. A poll taken in 2005 found that Wisconsinites supported medical marijuana by a majority of 75.7 percent.
In 2009, then-state Rep. Mark Pocan, who is now a congressman, and Sen. Jon Erpenbach offered legislation that would have required patients to obtain a prescription from a doctor to receive marijuana. Qualifying patients then would have then been able either to grow pot at home or obtain it through a licensed nonprofit dispensary.
Under that proposed bill, the state would have kept a registry of those who could have received and dispensed marijuana. The bill was nearly identical to one that Michigan voters approved by a 63-percent majority in 2008.
In October 2013, Wisconsin state Rep. Chris Taylor and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach introduced a medical marijuana bill that had 18 co-sponsors, but it failed to go anywhere, primarily due to GOP opposition.
Wisconsin Republicans have long opposed any move toward marijuana legalization. And even though Vos recently said he’s open to medical marijuana, he also said that his priority is ensuring that a marijuana derivative, known as CBD oil, is accessible to treat seizure disorders.
Fitzgerald said there are votes in the Senate to pass a bill making CBD oil available. But he added that he’s “certainly not there” on legalizing medical marijuana.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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.
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.
Just six months after Wisconsin’s two-year state budget was passed, state revenues are projected to come in below expectations due to slow economic growth. Less revenue makes it more difficult for the current Legislature to pass bills with any cost. Even worse, the slower economic growth projections forecast significant budget challenges for the future 2017–2019 budget.
But don’t take it from me. On Feb. 2, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said, “I think this next state budget is going to be just as rough as this past one. The economy is not going to continue to soar, it’s going to lag.” As a reminder, that “past one” that Sen. Fitzgerald is referring to is the budget that slashed $250 million from the UW System and failed even to attempt addressing the $1.05 billion cut from public schools over the last five years. What is most frustrating is these cuts cannot simply be chalked up to a lack of money, since they were made during a budget that spent over a billion dollars more than the previous one.
So why is Wisconsin state government in such bad financial shape? The answer is short-sighted budgeting and poor state economic growth.
Two budget decisions continue to stand out. The first is the ongoing decision to refuse the Medicaid expansion that would save Wisconsin taxpayers $320 million in our current budget alone, while providing health insurance for 83,000 more people. Wisconsin is the only upper Midwestern state to reject the federal money. Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans have decided that denying health insurance to those earning less than $16,240 a year (to make a political point) is more important than funding K-12 public education and the UW System.
The second budget decision has been blindly supporting an expansive tax credit passed in Walker’s first budget in 2011 that eliminates most state income taxes on owners of factories and agriculture producers. Originally estimated to cost $128 million a year by 2016–17, it is now estimated to cost 283.9 million. Simply delaying the final phase-in of this credit by two years could have saved nearly $78 million in the current budget.
These tax cuts are among the more than $4.7 billion in state tax cuts passed over the last 5 years in an effort to drive economic growth. But the reality is that it hasn’t worked: Wisconsin’s economy has continued to lag behind the nation as well as neighboring states. Over the last four years, Wisconsin has been 32nd in private-sector job growth and last in the Midwest. Over the last year, Wisconsin’s job-growth rate has been nearly half the national rate.
Last week, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank announced that Wisconsin is one of only seven states that likely has a shrinking economy in spite of the growing national economy. This news is made worse by the fact that Wisconsin is one of the only states in that group that cannot attribute its sluggish performance to historically low oil prices. This data mirrors the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary estimates that show Wisconsin lost 8,800 private-sector jobs between October and December of 2015.
So, while Senator Fitzgerald and I don’t agree often, I must agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that our next state budget is likely to be “rough.”
And I will go even further and make the not-so-bold prediction that rough budgets will continue as long the governor and Republican majority sacrifice valued Wisconsin institutions, like education, on the altar of badly crafted tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy and aren’t designed to create jobs.
State Repr. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) serves on the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
Despite the recent revelation that Wisconsin lost 10,000 jobs in 2015 — the biggest loss since the recession — Republican lawmakers returned to Madison after their holiday recess with everything but jobs on their minds.
They continued last week focusing their efforts on the agenda they followed last year, when they: rolled back the political reforms of the last century to shroud government operations in secrecy; barred prosecutors from using secretive John Doe investigative tactics against politicians; and reworked campaign finance laws to allow yet more dark money into the political process. With that partisan main agenda accomplished, the next few months will be about passing bills that appease the state’s far right. They want to shore up their conservative credentials and ward off potential challengers in the August primary.
They’ll have to move fast. The last floor debate days are scheduled for late April, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he wants his chamber to wrap up by the end of February. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hopes to finish in March.
One of the first orders of business for the Senate will be passing a bill that overhauls the state’s 110-year-old civil service system on Jan. 20. The bill eliminates exams for applicants and would end bumping rights that have protected more experienced workers from losing their jobs. The system was adopted to safeguard against cronyism and corruption in state hiring practices, and Democrats maintain that the measure would usher in a new era of turning state jobs into rewards for political supporters.
Also awaiting action is a proposal that would ban research using tissue from fetuses aborted after Jan. 1, 2015, and prohibit the commercial sale of fetal tissue. Researchers have complained the measure could chill work on potentially life-saving cures and treatments. The law would also damage the burgeoning biomedical research economy in Madison, which is one of the state’s only economic success stories.
Republicans have already shored up their support among anti-choice voters by passing bills banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and stripping Planned Parenthood of $3.5 million in federal funding. The fetal tissue ban, although it would destroy jobs, would energize religious right voters even more.
Also on the agenda is an Assembly bill limiting the ability of transgender citizens to use public restrooms. It would force transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender at birth rather than their chosen gender expression. Opponents insist the bill violates federal civil rights law, but it’s a red-meat issue for Christian fundamentalists.
Despite the fact that the United States recorded more than one mass shooting for every day in 2015, the GOP also wants to allow guns in more public places. Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Devin LeMahieu have introduced a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons into college buildings. They say the measure would make campuses safer.
University of Wisconsin leaders oppose the bill. Vos said the measure probably isn’t going anywhere in his house. Fitzgerald hinted the bill was all but dead in the Senate as well, saying it would be tough to take it up without Assembly support.
Republicans also are working on a measure that would allow lawmakers to impose special requirements such as withdrawal limits in areas where high-capacity wells are depleting groundwater. Farmers say the bill would make the well permitting process more uncertain.
The GOP also has drawn up bills that would make it easier for big polluters and environmentally destructive developers to operate in the state. The law would ease the regulatory path for development on water bodies. It would also take away power from local governments by barring counties from enacting county-wide development bans. Vos has said he likes the property rights bill.
Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate said they’re bracing for a frustrating four months. Republicans need to focus on real issues and help the middle class by boosting wages and creating more jobs, they said.
“(The Republicans are) just so brazen in terms of their willingness to feather their own nest without doing anything significant for the people of this state,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said.
Vos countered that he has created three task forces addressing how to bolster resources for dementia, urban education and preparing young people for the workforce. He also pointed out the state budget gives schools $69 million more in 2016-17.
Republican legislators have sent Gov. Scott Walker a bill barring prosecutors from using the so-called “John Doe” process to probe political misconduct.
The new law is Republicans’ response to prosecutors using the John Doe procedure to investigate Walker’s former associates as well as his recall campaign. Although the investigations resulted in formal charges and jail time, Republicans insist they were politically motivated and should never have been allowed to occur.
Democrats could also benefit from the greatly reduced oversight of political corruption that will result from the new law. But they’re crying foul, contending that the bill is obviously a set-up for Walker and his colleagues to continue carrying out shady and illegal campaign acts without having to worry about facing legal consequences.
“Legislators do not have the right to create or undo legislation to protect themselves, yet yesterday Assembly Republicans voted to end John Doe investigations taken out against politicians despite the fact that John Doe probes have been proven time and time again to work against both parties,” said Rep. Jonathan Brostoff in a prepared statement.
The Assembly passed the bill Tuesday evening on a 60–36 vote, with all Republicans in support and Democrats opposed, after four hours of fierce debate.
The Senate took up the proposal around midday Tuesday. Debate stretched into the late afternoon before minority Democrats blocked a final reading of the bill, the last step before a vote. The move prevented a vote until the next calendar day; Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald adjourned the chamber Tuesday evening and reconvened it about seven hours later at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Debate went on for nearly an hour as Democrats argued the bill would create an elite class of politician that’s above the law and Republicans insisted prosecutors have turned the John Doe process into a political weapon. In the end the chamber passed the measure 18-14, with all Republicans voting for the measure and all Democrats against.
The Assembly took a final vote on the measure Wednesday afternoon, sending it to Walker, whose signature will make it state law and shield him from future prosecutions for unethical conduct.
John Doe proceedings are similar to grand jury investigations in that information is tightly controlled. Prosecutors secretly present evidence to a judge and can force witnesses to testify in secret. The judge ultimately decides whether a crime has been committed.
Walker has been involved in two John Doe investigations led by Milwaukee prosecutors. The first focused on his aides and associates when he was Milwaukee County executive. It netted six convictions, although Walker himself was never charged. The second investigation, which grew out of the first, looked into whether his 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups.
That probe lasted about three years before the state Supreme Court’s right-wing majority halted it this summer, finding it unconstitutional. The justices who voted to end the probe received a total of at least $8 million from the corporate-right groups with which Walker’s campaign coordinated on issue advocacy. Under federal law, such coordination is a crime.
No one was charged in that investigation, but it dogged Walker as he ran for re-election last fall and again during his presidential bid this year. Republicans have loudly denounced the investigation as a political witchhunt. They maintain police were too heavy-handed when they executed a pre-dawn search warrant at the home of former Walker aide Cindy Archer and others. Archer has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid violated her civil rights.
Under the bill, prosecutors could use John Does to investigate serious physical crimes and drug activity but not allegations of campaign finance violations, misconduct in office or campaigning on government time.
Prosecutors would have to obtain permission from a majority of the state’s chief judges to extend investigations beyond six months. Secrecy orders would apply only to judges, prosecutors, court officials and investigators; witnesses and suspects would be allowed to discuss such investigations openly.
Republican backers in both the Senate and Assembly insisted the bill would protect free speech rights and bring a stop to meandering investigations designed to smear prosecutors’ political enemies.
Opponents said the measure is designed to shield politicians from investigators and will open the door to corruption.
“For all of you out there sitting on something that might be shady, don’t worry about it,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said. “You wonder why people don’t like politicians. It’s this crap.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said that if it weren’t for “Walker derangement syndrome,” Democrats would support limiting John Does as well.
During the floor debate, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, compared sheriff’s deputies who executed search warrants in the probe to Nazis. Democrats, including several Jewish lawmakers who said they were offended by the comparison, demanded an apology.
“Our Wisconsin law enforcement are not Nazis,” said Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, a Democrat from Milwaukee. “Nazis are Nazis.”
Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau and a former Onalaska police officer, called the remarks out-of-line.
“Cry me a river if you’re a criminal suspect and you don’t like a search warrant being executed,” he said. “Boo, hoo, hoo.”
Associated Press reporters Todd Richmond and Scott Bauer contributed to this report.
Ten political action committees (PACs) controlled by labor unions that represent police, firefighters, plumbers, carpenters and construction workers contributed about $64,000 during the first six months of 2015 to Republican campaign committees.
The labor PAC contributions to Republicans accounted for about 45 percent of the total $142,350 in labor PAC contributions to all legislative and statewide officeholders and candidates between January and June 2015, which was the same period that the Republican-controlled legislature and GOP Gov. Scott Walker considered and approved prevailing wage law changes and a right-to-work law that were opposed by most unions.
Topping the list of labor unions that contributed to Republican statewide and legislative officeholders was the Wisconsin Pipe Trades PAC, which gave $36,000, including $30,000 to Walker and $6,000 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee (RACC). RACC is used by Republican Assembly leaders to raise money from special interests to spend against Assembly Democratic legislators and candidates in elections.
The Milwaukee Police Association PAC, which is one of the few labor unions that has been a longtime contributor to mostly Republican legislative and statewide candidates, contributed $11,000 to GOP fundraising committees, including $6,000 to RACC, $3,500 to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate (CERS), $1,000 to GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, and $500 to Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. CERS is used by Republican Senate leaders to raise money from special interests to spend against Democratic state senators and candidates in elections.
Rounding out the top three labor PACs that gave to Republicans was the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Local PAC, which contributed $7,000, including $6,000 to RACC and $1,000 to CERS.
The top Republican recipients of labor PAC contributions between January and June 2015 were Walker, $32,500; RACC, $24,000; and CERS, $4,500.
In March, Walker and majority GOP legislators approved a right-to-work law, which prohibits requiring workers to make payments to labor unions as a condition for employment. In July, Walker and the legislature approved a 2015-17 state budget that repealed the state’s prevailing wage law as it applies to local government projects.