Government and Political Roundup: Deal hopes to be reached on where public employees can live
MADISON - State Assembly leaders hope to reach a deal with their state Senate counterparts today on a plan to keep letting communities tell their public employees where they can live.
The Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to vote on Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal to force municipalities to drop their residency requirements. Yesterday, committee co-chair John Nygren of Marinette and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Burlington proposed letting workers live within a certain distance of the communities they serve, or pay penalties for not doing so. Neither the distance nor the penalties were specified. Republican Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah scoffed at the idea of charging a penalty, calling it "ridiculous." Jim Palmer of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association said officers should have the right to choose where to live - and they'll keep doing a good job regardless. Racine Mayor Jim Dickert, head of the Wisconsin Urban Alliance, says the compromise still gives the state too much power over communities. Dickert said quote, "We're doing things for a reason, and each municipality is doing something different." Milwaukee police and fire-fighters have tried for years to abolish a requirement that they live in the city. They're among the few public unions supporting Walker in both of his election bids. Critics say Walker is now paying them back with his plan to abolish residency rules - something he has long denied.
Milwaukee County Board members would get less power, and maybe smaller paychecks, under a bill passed by the state Assembly yesterday. Fifty-nine Republicans voted yes, and 39 Democrats voted no to giving more authority to the chief executive of Wisconsin's largest county. Governor Scott Walker used to hold that job - and he supports the reforms proposed by former County Board member Joe Sanfelippo of West Allis soon after he joined the Legislature. Meanwhile, a Senate committee endorsed its own version of the bill, which clarifies the county executive's authority on union negotiations. That means both houses will have to reconcile their differences. State Senate leaders plan to take up the measure next week. Sanfelippo says he does not care which version ultimately passes. Democrats say the bill is another example of the state meddling in local government affairs when it suits Republicans to do so. Assembly Democrat Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay said all the proposed changes should be subject to a binding referendum. The current bill demands a referendum only for a proposed 50-percent pay cut for Milwaukee County Board members.
The state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will consider a 14-million-dollar increase today in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's next two-year budget. The agency is under fire for not following state-mandated policies, and not properly awarding and monitoring tax breaks to companies for creating jobs. Finance co-chair John Nygren of Marinette says it's possible that his panel will delay the WEDC's proposed increase until it makes certain reforms and becomes more accountable. Nygren said lawmakers will give the corporation a chance to fix itself. Both Nygren and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Burlington agree with Governor Scott Walker that the agency has become more receptive to businesses than the former state Commerce Department. But Vos said quote, "They've done some things I'm not proud of." Walker said many of the problems stemmed from old and unwritten Commerce policies that the new agency had relied upon. Agency head Reed Hall told the WEDC board yesterday that new procedures are already in place for tracking loans, and computers are being upgraded. Board member Julie Lassa, a Democratic senator from Stevens Point, said taxpayers are angry about the way the agency's been run. If the department doesn't reform itself, Lassa says lawmakers will do it for them - and at worst, it could mean replacing the public-private WEDC with a new government office.
The Wisconsin State Assembly has voted to let doctors give less information to patients about alternative medical treatments. The vote was 65-31 yesterday in favor of a bill from Mequon Republican Jim Ott. He wants to nullify a State Supreme Court decision from last year which told doctors to inform patients about all alternative treatments which might benefit them - even if they're not related to their diagnoses. The ruling stemmed from the case of Thomas Jandre. He was diagnosed as having Bell's Palsy, and was awarded two-million dollars after his doctor was found negligent in not telling him about an ultrasound that could have warded off a stroke he suffered. Ott says his bill still requires what a reasonable doctor would tell a patient. Sun Prairie Democrat Gary Hebl says the bill goes too far in changing the state's informed consent rules.
The state Assembly voted 58-39 on a bill that would delay trials in lawsuits from people exposed to asbestos. Republican supporters say plaintiffs often try to hide the fact that they're seeking money from the trust funds of businesses that go bankrupt. They say judges don't get the whole story before deciding the levels of responsibility. But victims' groups say the bill delays justice for many people exposed to asbestos, mostly from their service in the military. The new bill requires plaintiffs to disclose claims against trust funds, and trials would be delayed six months in those instances. Both bills now go to the Senate.
Four state lawmakers from both parties will unveil a new bill today to ban the use of drones in Wisconsin. Assembly Republican Tyler August of Lake Geneva says the measure would generally prohibit law enforcement and others from using drones equipped with video-or-audio equipment, or those that use weapons. August says the bill is designed to protect people's privacy in the face of new technology. The measure would also specify that law enforcement can use drones only for manhunts and other legitimate purposes. Current laws do not spell out such rules. Assembly Republican David Craig of Big Bend and Democrats Fred Kessler of Milwaukee and Chris Taylor of Madison will join August in unveiling their legislation at a late morning news conference.
For the first time ever, African-Americans had a higher voting rate than whites in last fall's presidential election - and Wisconsin appeared to have followed the same trend. The U.S. Census Bureau said yesterday that 66-point-two percent of blacks voted nationally, one-and-a-half percent higher than the rate for white voters. The Census Bureau surveyed Americans about their voting, and it found that 79-percent of black Wisconsin adults went to the polls, compared to 75-percent of non-Hispanic whites. There was a 10-percent margin-of-error in the Wisconsin survey, due to the state's relatively small numbers of black voters. But Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel analyst Craig Gilbert said the voting percentages appeared to be consistent with the election results. Milwaukee is where the state's black vote is concentrated, and the city gave more votes to President Obama last year than in 2008 - even though the statewide support declined. The national Census report also showed that the voter turnout for black women was nine percentage points higher than for men. Overall, about four-percent more women than men voted last November. The youth vote - which Obama especially courted in 2008 - dropped this time. Obama is the nation's first African-American president, and this term is his last. Census officials would not project what the racial voting trends might be in the future.