10 Wins to Celebrate on July 4 in Wisconsin

June 27, 2016

In honor of July 4, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has come up with a list of 10 legislative victories for We, the People, that occurred in the last legislative session.

Number one on the list took place exactly a year ago, when Republicans in the legislature sought to shield themselves from our open records law by waging a sneak attack on the eve of July 4.

Number two was the effort to abandon the Wisconsin Idea, which Gov. Scott Walker said was a “drafting error” but it turns out it was anything but.

The other eight items on the list received less coverage in the statewide media, but also merit attention.

Earlier this year, the Democracy Campaign issued a report, “Walker’s Worst 100,” that detailed 100 new laws enacted since the beginning of 2011 (when Republicans took control of the legislature and the governor’s office) that have made our air and water dirtier; weakened the safety net for the poor, elderly and disabled; made it harder to vote; gave corporations and the wealthy more ways to buy influence; rolled back consumer protections; threatened the quality of K-12 and higher education; damaged women’s health care; and thwarted the rights of communities to decide numerous local issues.

Given the magnitude of the assault on open government and good public policy over the past five years, it’s easy to forget that the public was able to repel ten additional attacks in the last session.

The following list of failed, bad bills should remind Wisconsinites that when, We, the People, sound off against proposals that put big-moneyed special interests ahead of the public good, we can win!

So as we celebrate July 4, let’s celebrate these 10 victories over the following proposals to:

1. Gut the State’s Open Records Law – Shortly before the July 4 holiday weekend last year, Republican legislators on the Joint Finance Committee snuck some sweeping provisions into the proposed 2015-17 state budget that would have virtually closed off the workings of the legislature and the special interests that influence it from public view. The provisions, which were pulled after a public outcry, would have:

  • Excluded all legislative “deliberative materials” from the open records laws. These included: “communications and other materials, including opinions, analyses, briefings, background information, recommendations, suggestions, drafts, correspondence about drafts, and notes, created or prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action or in the process of drafting a document or formulating an official communication.”
  • Granted legislators the legal privilege to “refuse to disclose, and to prevent a current or former legislative staff member from disclosing,” legislative business.
  • Required “legislative service agencies to at all times observe the confidential nature of all communications, records, and information that may be subject to these legislator privileges.”

2. Abandon the Wisconsin Idea – A provision in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-17 state budget would have removed the Wisconsin Idea from the University of Wisconsin System’s mission statement and would have deleted “the search for truth” from it. Walker later backed off from proposed changes and called them a “drafting error.” The governor was sued for records involving the proposed change because he refused to release them, contending the records were part of the “deliberative process” and exempt from the Wisconsin Open Records Law. A Dane County circuit judge recently ordered the release of some of the records, which Walker had withheld from the public for nearly a year. The documents that were released show Walker’s office had been apprised of the Wisconsin Idea proposal before it was put in the budget and that Walker wanted the UW’s mission statement changed.

3. Cripple Stem Cell Research – Legislation was introduced to create criminal penalties for stem cell research using fetal tissue. Both Senate Bill 260, and its companion, Assembly Bill 305, received public hearings and recommendations for passage, but did not get a vote in either the GOP-controlled Senate or the Assembly. Both bills drew support from anti-abortion and religious groups and opposition from the medical community, University of Wisconsin (UW) researchers and drug and biotechnology interests. The bills were authored by Sen. Dewey Stroebel, of Saukville, and Rep. Andre Jacque, of De Pere.

4. Pack Guns in Public Schools – Legislation was introduced to allow Wisconsin’s 300,000-plus concealed-carry permit holders to pack guns in public schools. The measures, AB846 and SB589, didn’t even get a public hearing, let alone a floor vote in either house. The proposals drew support from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Milwaukee Police Association, and were opposed by school boards, social workers and the city of Milwaukee. The measures were authored by Sen. Mary Lazich, of New Berlin, and Rep. Robert Brooks, of Saukville.

5. Pack Guns on Campus – Legislation was introduced to allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring their guns to college classes. The measures, AB480 and SB363, did not get public hearings or a vote in either house. The proposals were opposed by the state teachers union, UW and technical college employees, social and mental health workers, and the city of Milwaukee. The measures were authored by Sen. Devin LeMahieu, of Oostburg, and Rep. Jesse Kremer, of Kewaskum.

6. Privatize Drinking Water – Legislation was introduced to make it harder for local residents to stop the sale of their municipal water utilities to companies that buy and operate the utilities for profit. The measures, SB432 and AB554, received public hearings, and AB554 was approved the Assembly but died in the Senate. The measures were opposed by unions, environmentalists, and municipal officials and utilities, and supported by the construction industry and an out-of-state company, AquaAmerica, that buys municipal water utilities around the country. The proposals, which were similar to model legislation offered by a special interest bill mill called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), were authored by Sen. Frank Lasee, of De Pere, and Rep. Tyler August, of Lake Geneva.

7. Limit Local School Referendums – Legislation was introduced to limit the timing and frequency of local school spending referendums. The measures, AB481 and SB355, would have allowed school district referendums to go before voters only on spring and fall election days. The bills would also have prohibited school districts from bringing a failed referendum back before taxpayers for at least one year. The plans received public hearings, but failed to reach the full Assembly or Senate. The measures drew support from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the state’s largest business group, and the conservative ideological group Americans for Prosperity backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. WMC and Americans for Prosperity have spent an estimated $22.4 million on outside electioneering activities to back Republican legislative and statewide candidates since January 2010.

8. Destroy Indian Burial Mounds – Legislation was introduced to allow individual landowners to excavate Native American burial grounds in order to develop their property. The measure, AB620, was backed by WMC and construction interests, and opposed by Indian tribes, labor, tourism, and environmental interests. The bill, which failed to even get a public hearing, was sponsored by Sen. Chris Kapenga, of Delafield, and Rep. Robert Brooks, of Saukville.

9. Make Life More Difficult for Immigrants – Legislation was introduced to cut state aid to communities that designated themselves as sanctuaries for immigrants. The measures, SB369 and AB450, would have prohibited local governments from enacting or enforcing ordinances that prevent police and other city employees from asking individuals who have been arrested whether they are in the country legally. The proposals, which were authored by Sen. Stephen Nass, of Whitewater, and Rep. John Spiros, of Marshfield, received public hearings and one of the bills was approved by the Assembly, but died in the Senate. The measures were opposed by immigrant rights groups, as well as social welfare, union, religious, agriculture, and other interests, and supported by law enforcement organizations.

10. Revamp Disability and Elderly Care Programs – A proposal approved last year in the 2015-17 state budget required the Department of Health Services to devise a plan giving the responsibility to run the popular Family Care and IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct) programs to private insurance companies. The programs provide financial, medical and home care services to about 55,000 elderly or disabled Wisconsin residents. The Health Services Department released the plan in April, but announced June 9 that it was being dropped after a great outcry from the disability and elderly rights communities.

Happy 4th of July!