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Government and Political Roundup: Impasse reached about school vouchers

Top Republican leaders met yesterday to seek an agreement on expanding Wisconsin's private school voucher program. Senate President Mike Ellis said an impasse was reached. He told the A-P that negotiations will continue, but it's not likely they can reach a deal today - when the Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to vote on Governor Scott Walker's plan to expand the voucher program. It gives tax funding to low-income kids so they attend private schools with the goal of getting a better education. It operated in parts of Milwaukee for 20 years before expanding to the Milwaukee suburbs and Racine two years ago. Now, Walker wants to expand the choice program to Madison, Green Bay, and seven other Wisconsin districts with low-performing public schools. He said parents should have the choice of sending their kids to better schools. But some G-O-P lawmakers are concerned about the loss of state aid that the public districts would face. They've been pushing for a compromise. Ellis said Walker met yesterday on the issue with him, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Senate Education Committee chair Luther Olsen, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.


A chief sponsor of Wisconsin's photo I-D law for voting wants his colleagues to support a new bill to address concerns raised by judges who struck the law down. Assembly Republican Jeff Stone of Greendale is asking lawmakers to co-sponsor his new measure - which would also make changes to other state election laws. Stone's bill would exempt poor people from having to show I-D's if they sign affidavits saying they're poor, cannot get an I-D without paying for a birth certificate, or have a religious objection to being photographed. Their ballots would be marked, and their credentials would be checked if there's a recount. The state continues to appeal rulings from two Dane County judges who struck down the voter I-D law last year. Two federal challenges are also pending. Assistant Democratic Minority Leader Sandy Pasch says the G-O-P should work to create jobs instead of quote, "pushing a divisive and unnecessary anti-voter agenda."

Stone's bill would also prohibit voters from showing electronic items as proof-of-residence when they register. It also lets lobbyists give to state candidates for a longer period during election years. School boards would be banned from using tax dollars to promote referendums to exceed state revenue limits. Candidates who seek recounts would have to pay more, if they lose by over one-half-of-one-percent. Recalls of local officials could only be sought for criminal charges or ethics violations - something that's already being considered in a separate bill. Stone says he'd rather address necessary election reforms in one bill, instead of 25-to-30 measures floating around.


Wisconsin doctors would not be held liable for apologizing to their patients for medical mistakes, under a bill that's up for a public hearing today. The Assembly Health Committee will take testimony on a measure which seeks to let health professionals express condolences to patients and families, without fear of losing malpractice suits. The Assembly's main sponsor is Star Prairie Republican Erik Severson, who's a doctor. A similar measure was proposed in the Senate by Wauwatosa Republican Leah Vukmir, who's a nurse. The G-O-P Assembly passed the bill two years ago, but it did not get through the Senate. Former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle vetoed the same bill in 2006. Critics said Doyle was showing his bias toward trial lawyers. A lawyers' group opposes the new bill, saying it goes too far by not holding doctors accountable if they admit fault in their apologies. The state's Hospital Association and Medical Society both support the bill, saying it could reduce the need to for families to file lawsuits to see what really happened to their loved ones.

Also today, the Assembly Health panel will take testimony on two abortion-related bills. Elkhart Lake Republican Steve Kestell is sponsoring a bill that calls for civil liability and penalties against doctors who perform abortions just because the mother doesn't like the gender of the fetus. The other bill would restrict abortions to public employees if any public funds are involved. It also lets health plans use religious grounds to side-step the requirement that contraceptives be included in plans that cover other prescriptions.


All Wisconsin high school juniors would have to take the A-C-T college entrance exam, under a budget measure to be considered by the state Legislature's finance panel today. Governor Scott Walker and state public school Superintendent Tony Evers wants to use the A-C-T and other tests to replace the long-running W-K-C-E achievement exams. Eleventh-graders would take the A-C-T and the Work-Keys' test that's designed to test job skills. Elementary youngsters would take a new exam designed by a group of 28 states including Wisconsin. All of tests are aligned with the state's new education standards. The budget panel is also scheduled today to take up the governor's plan to expand private school vouchers in up to nine additional school districts. Senate Republicans had talked about a possible compromise, but no deal emerged as of yesterday.


The panel that's working on the new state budget will decide today whether to clarify a law to require stores with roll-your-own cigarette machines to pay manufacturing taxes. Wisconsin requires cigarette makers to pay taxes of just over 2.50-a-pack. The state began a crackdown on roll-your-own businesses last year, to get them to pay the manufacturing tax. Wausau store owner Robert Petersen then filed suit, saying it's customers who do the manufacturing - not the machine owners. Petersen withdrew his lawsuit after President Obama signed a federal law last year which declared roll-your-own machine owners as manufacturers. Governor Scott Walker's proposed state budget would put Wisconsin law in line with the new federal designation.


The state Justice Department will close its field office in Superior to save money. Attorney General J-B Van Hollen says two of the four special agents in the office are retiring. The other two will keep working, but their boss will be the agent-in-charge of the Eau Claire office, Jed Sperry. The man who headed the Superior office, Jay Smith, will keep working without his administrative duties - and he's getting a pay cut as a result. Justice officials did not say when the Superior office would close, or how much money it would save.


Wisconsin taxpayers spent almost 775-thousand dollars last year to feed-and-house state legislators while they were in Madison. Ninety-six Assembly members claimed about 546-thousand dollars in per-diem payments. Thirty-six senators - including some chosen in special elections during the year - claimed 228-thousand. Republican Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau received 14-thousand-600 dollars in expense checks, the most among the lawmakers in both houses. Assembly G-O-P leader Scott Suder of Abbotsford had the second-highest claims, around 13-thousand. Both lawmakers spent more time at the Capitol than others, as they helped set the agendas for their respective houses. The Wisconsin State Journal says Democrats claimed more expense money on average than Republicans. Democrats ran the Senate for about six months last year. The G-O-P ran both houses the rest of the time. Lawmakers can claim 88-dollars a day for food-and-lodging expenses while in Madison. Legislators from surrounding Dane County get 44-dollars a day.