Busy day at the capitol: Wisconsin lawmakers consider host of bills

Wisconsin State Capitol
Posted at 9:12 AM, Mar 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-23 10:12:25-04

Lawmakers in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate considered a number of bills on Wednesday.

The Wisconsin Assembly passed a pair of bipartisan bills on Wednesday that would increase penalties for reckless driving offenses.

Here is the latest from The Associated Press:

Wisconsin Assembly approves tougher felony riot penalties

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Anyone who encourages a riot or engages in violence during a riot would face felony charges under a bill Wisconsin's Assembly approved Wednesday.

The Republican-backed measure would make urging, promoting or organizing a riot a felony punishable by up to three years and six months in prison. Engaging in violence during a riot would a felony with up to six years in prison.

The bill defines a riot as a disturbance involving violence that’s part of a gathering of at least three people. The act of violence must have a clear and present danger of property damage or personal injury.

The Assembly passed the bill on a 62-35 vote. The measure now goes to the Senate. However, its prospects look dim. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a similar bill last year that would have made attending a riot a misdemeanor with up to nine months' jail, and participating in a riot that causes property damage or injuries would have been a felony with up to three years and six months in prison.

Evers said in his veto message that it's already a crime to refuse police orders to withdraw from an unlawful assembly, and that the bill could infringe on free speech rights.

Republicans introduced the bill after protesters burned swaths of downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, and damaged statues during demonstrations against police brutality in 2020.

Wisconsin lawmakers pass bill to clarify cash bail amendment

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature moved Wednesday to clarify when a proposed constitutional amendment to make it harder for people to go free on bail before trial would apply.

Both chambers of the Legislature passed a bill specifying which offenses would fall under the proposed amendment that, if approved by a majority of the state's April voters, would allow judges to consider the criminal histories of people accused of violent crimes when setting bail.

State law offers three definitions of violent crime. The GOP-backed bill would set a new definition for use with the bail amendment, designating more than 100 offenses such as homicide, sexual assault, arson, stalking or human trafficking as violent crimes.

Opponents have said the list is too broad and includes offenses that should not make it more difficult for people to get out on bail, such as watching a cockfight, violating a court order against contacting members of a criminal gang or leaving a firearm where a child gains access to it.

The bill still needs the approval of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. After that, the measure would go into effect only if voters pass two bail questions on the April 4 ballot. Evers cannot veto a constitutional amendment.

Republican Rep. Cindi Duchow, the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, said she was confident Evers will sign the bill into law.

“If he does veto it and the constitutional amendment passes, then it’s kind of the Wild West. Every judge can decide what they think serious harm is; every judge can decide what he thinks violent crime is,” she said in a news conference.

The governor's spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday or to two emails over the past week asking whether Evers plans to sign off on the bill.

Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter accused Republicans of using the proposed amendment to bolster conservative turnout in the pivotal state Supreme Court election and said lawmakers were confusing voters by using a separate measure to clarify when the amendment would apply.

“A lot of people are very confused what the two questions are,” Carpenter said in a news conference. "They really don’t know what they’re voting on.”

All Democrats in the Senate, except for Sen. Brad Pfaff, voted against the bill with all Republicans in support. Five of the 35 Assembly Democrats and all Assembly Republicans voted in support of the bill.

Currently, bail is set only as a means to ensure someone returns to court. Duchow and Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, sponsors of both the proposed amendment and the bill to define violent crimes, argue that judges should have greater freedom to set high bail amounts if they believe a defendant poses a threat to public safety.

Republican state lawmakers across the country have pushed for stricter cash bail laws since the year began, following through on a midterm cycle in which the GOP painted itself as tough on crime.

Criminal justice advocates say using cash bail benefits wealthy defendants and does not protect public safety. Wisconsin Democrats introduced an alternative to the bail amendment last week that would virtually eliminate the use of cash bail and make risk the sole factor when deciding who to release before trial. Their proposal is unlikely to make any progress in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Wisconsin Assembly approves parole commission bill

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's parole commission would be forced to meet in public and post its decisions online under a Republican-authored bill the state Assembly overwhelmingly approved Wednesday.

Republicans have heaped criticism on the commission after it decided to parole convicted murderer Douglas Balsewicz last May. He had served 25 years of an 80-year sentence for fatally stabbing his wife. Her family insisted they weren't notified of the decision until only a few days before he was set to be released.

The decision became a hot topic in the governor's race that summer. The commission's chairperson, John Tate, ultimately rescinded Balsewicz's parole at Gov. Tony Evers request and resigned a few weeks later, again at the governor's request.

The bill would remove the commission's exemption from the state's open meeting laws, forcing the panel to meet in public and post notice of its meetings.

The Department of Corrections would be required to post the names of individuals granted or denied parole as well as monthly and annual totals. Commission agendas currently don't list parole applicants names.

The bill also would guarantee that victims have a right to speak at parole hearings. State law already provides that guarantee but the bill tightens the language.

The Assembly passed the bill 77-20. The legislation now goes to the Senate.

Evers' spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, didn't immediately respond to a message inquiring about whether the governor supports the bill.

Wisconsin Legislature allows conversion therapy for patients

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Legislature took the final step needed Wednesday to stop Gov. Tony Evers' administration from enacting a ban on the discredited practice known as conversion therapy.

Republicans who control the state Senate voted over the objections of Democrats to effectively allow therapists and others to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Republicans used a procedural move to freeze any future attempts through 2024 to ban conversion therapy. The Senate vote came after the Assembly took the same step earlier this month.

Republicans have stopped a ban on conversion therapy since it was first attempted to be enacted by the board that licenses mental health professionals in 2020.

Conversion therapy for minors has been banned in more than a dozen Wisconsin cities. And at least 20 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed conversion therapy for minors, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a pro-LGBTQ rights think tank.

LGBTQ rights advocates have decried the scientifically discredited practice of trying to “convert” LGBTQ people to heterosexuality and traditional gender expectations as harmful, citing research suggesting the practice can increase the risk of suicide and depression.

Senate Democrats argued that the discredited practice should be banned. No Republican lawmaker spoke in favor of allowing conversion therapy before they all voted for it.

Sick days perk for Wisconsin lawmakers targeted

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A perk that allows Wisconsin state lawmakers to apply the value of unused sick days to pay for health insurance premiums upon retirement is being targeted for elimination under a new bill.

The proposal circulated Wednesday by three Republicans would end the benefit going forward, but not take away accrued time for current lawmakers.

Members of the state Senate and Assembly currently receive about 10.5 sick days per year. Unused days accumulate and upon retirement convert to a credit that can be used to pay for the state's retiree's group health insurance premium.

According to the bill sponsors, only five other states offer the same benefit to retirees.

As of Feb. 1, the estimated value of accrued credits for the 132 members of the Legislature was more than $5.6 million, or nearly $43,000 per lawmaker. Last year, retired lawmakers used their credits to pay for more than $1.6 million in healthcare premiums, according to the bill sponsors.

The proposal from Sen. Mark Felzkowski and state Rep. David Steffen, both Republicans, would eliminate the ability to accrue new sick leave beyond the current term.

Because lawmakers don't have to report when they are sick, they rarely claim the days resulting in the program becoming “almost entirely a post-retirement political perk,” the bill sponsors said.