GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ROUNDUP: Government bodies received only seven citations for holding secret meetings since 2009
Wisconsin's nearly two-thousand state and local government bodies were given only seven citations for holding illegal secret meetings since 2009. And none were cited for illegally withholding public records. That's according to Gannett Wisconsin Media, which also found that 17 other open meeting law violations around the state were cited but later dropped. Gannett said there's no way to track the actual numbers of open meetings and open records violations statewide. It quoted watchdogs as saying the numbers of violations are much higher than what gets to court. Bill Lueders of the state's Freedom of Information Council said prosecutors are very reluctant to enforce open government laws -- and he was surprised there were seven prosecutions. Fines range up to a-thousand dollars for illegally withholding public records, and 300-dollars for holding closed meetings that don't meet the specific exceptions of the open meeting law. Prosecutors told Gannett it's most effective to teach local officials about their obligations to the public instead of punishing them for not doing so. Other observers said the laws give governments a powerful incentive to comply, because if they lose, they must pay the attorneys' fees of those who sue them for such violations.
Just over three-percent of Wisconsin's billion-dollar budget surplus would be used to train new workers, under a bill Governor Scott Walker will sign into law today. The Republican Walker plans a mid-morning ceremony at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville. He'll highlight 35-million dollars in additional worker training efforts through June of next year. The measure also includes new efforts to help disabled Wisconsinites find jobs. Meanwhile, the Assembly is expected to take its final vote tomorrow on using just over half the surplus on tax relief. Both houses have approved the use of 504-million dollars for property-and-income tax relief for the next year and a half. The Assembly will be asked to ratify other changes in the package made by the Senate last month. About 100-million dollars that was supposed to go into the state's Rainy Day Fund for emergencies would go into the general fund instead. Also, the Senate endorsed 38-million dollars in new spending cuts to off-set a possible structural deficit to start the next budget in mid-2015. Governor Scott Walker has agreed to the bill's newest changes.
Wisconsin's death investigators would have to get training and continuing education under a proposal from a Republican lawmaker. Green Bay Representative Chad Weininger says the biggest need is in counties that have elected coroners, as opposed to appointed medical examiners who are generally doctors. Under the measure, both coroners and examiners would need to be licensed and get 40 hours of training. A new state board would be created to oversee the death investigators, and set requirements for their continuing education. Weininger says the lack of a current training mandate means that anyone can get elected coroner, and somebody down the road could quote, "get away with murder." Opponents of the idea say voters should elect who they want. Brown County Sheriff John Gossage says Weininger's proposal might cause state requirements for other local elected officials. Weininger says that's already happening. Elected county district attorneys need to have Wisconsin law licenses before they can take office. This is all a moot point for this year, anyway. There are only a few days left in the current two-year legislative session.
Wisconsin senators are expected to vote on two more bills tomorrow to fight the state's growing abuse of heroin. One measure would give rapid sanctions to heroin convicts who violate their probation and parole. The other bill requires the state to create regional opiate treatment centers in areas of the state which don't get that service now. Assembly Republican John Nygren of Marinette sponsored both measures, after his daughter struggled with heroin abuse. Nygren also wrote four other heroin-related measures which have passed both houses and are now awaiting Governor Scott Walker's signature. Among other things, those bills would grant limited immunity for those who report heroin overdoses to rescue agencies, and allow trained emergency responders to administer the heroin antidote Narcan.
Governor Scott Walker will sign a bill in Milwaukee this afternoon that could pave the way for a new downtown lakefront hotel and high-rise apartment complex. However, a local park preservation group says the bill would still make it unconstitutional to build the project, since it would be located on a filled lake-bed. State lawmakers approved an exception, to allow Milwaukee County's under-used Downtown Transit Center to be replaced by a 44-story hotel-and-housing structure called the Couture Building. The park preservation group says it might file suit to halt the project. It said a map filed in 1884 showed that about two-thirds of the two-acre transit center property was in Lake Michigan before the site was filled.