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State Government and Political Roundup: Another busy day in Madison

MADISON - Another busy day is ahead for the lawmakers who are re-working the proposed new state budget.

The State Legislature's Joint Finance Committee goes back to work at 10 this morning, to tackle several major points of contention in Governor Scott Walker's two-year spending package. The panel is scheduled to decide how to eliminate an estimated $63.5 million dollar deficit in Wisconsin's transportation fund. Earlier, the panel said to no to adding two State Patrol safety investigators and inspectors - and it reduced funds to ease traffic congestion. The committee delayed the tougher decisions, like reducing state road aid to local governments, and pushing back repairs on Milwaukee area freeways. Also today, the finance panel will consider freezing tuition at UW schools, after millions in campus reserves were recently disclosed. The committee will also consider paying for a plan to take D-N-A samples from those arrested for major crimes, instead of just those convicted. Some panel members have already talked about dropping a provision that would let rent-to-own companies withhold certain details about contracts until after the consumers sign them. That's part of a series of reductions in consumer protections for rent-to-own customers.


Wisconsin lawmakers could decide today whether the Justice Department needs a solicitor general to handle a growing number of legal challenges to state laws and policies. The Joint Finance Committee will take up a number of high-profile budget proposals - including a million dollars to bring back a former division to handle the state's more complex cases and appeals. Republican Attorney General J-B Van Hollen says he needs a solicitor general, as critics file more challenges to measures from Governor Scott Walker and majority G-O-P lawmakers. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the governor can bring in outside lawyers to help the Justice Department, and it's not clear whether the solicitor general would save money. The non-partisan fiscal agency also said the attorneys in the new division would be paid over twice as much as other state lawyers.


Governor Scott Walker is writing a book - and apparently, Janesville House Republican Paul Ryan is doing the same. The National Review says Ryan wants to highlight a number of personal topics and policy ideas, as both he and Walker are speculated to be gearing up for Republican White House candidacies in 2016. Walker's book will be called "Un-intimidated," and it's due out later this year. The Ryan book reportedly has neither a title nor a possible release date. The National Review maagazine says it will touch on Ryan's recent contention that the GOP needs to show those in poverty how to achieve economic freedom. The report also says Ryan will describe his childhood in Janesville, his work as an aide to former Congressman Jack Kemp, and his rise in Congress. He also plans to write about his experience as the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012. But don't expect a lot of dirt about that. The National Review says Ryan has told friends that he'll only praise Mitt Romney - and he won't be writing a tell-all memoir. He's said to be working with attorney Bob Barnett on the project - but so far at least, Ryan's been writing by himself.


Wisconsin's budget committee has endorsed a measure that could help the developers of a large dairy farm win a lawsuit against their project. Late Tuesday, the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted to prohibit legal action against water wells, if the DNR chooses not to study the impact of those projects on neighboring wells. Neighbors of a proposed 35-million dollar dairy farm in Adams County have filed suit to stop the project. The plaintiffs claim in part that the DNR never determined the mega-dairy's impact on adjacent existing wells. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says the case is before a state appeals court, and will be the subject of a contested-case hearing within the DNR next month. The agency approved two high-capacity wells for the proposed Richfield Dairy in Adams County. The farm's developers - Milk Source Incorporated - said it did not ask lawmakers to step in. Assembly Republican Dan LeMahieu of Sheboygan County proposed the measure, and has not said why. All four Democrats on the finance panel voted no, while all 12 Republicans voted yes. Assembly Democrat Cory Mason of Racine said it's a bad idea for lawmakers to limit considering the effects of large wells on other properties.


Domestic abuse suspects who are under restraining orders could soon be monitored by authorities. The state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will consider a budget measure today that includes up to three-million dollars for additional GPS monitoring over the next two years. Governor Scott Walker proposed the measure in response to the murders of three women in a Brookfield spa by Radcliffe Haughton last October. Haughton was under a restraining order against seeing the estranged wife he murdered before he killed himself. Under the budget proposal, judges could order GPS monitoring as part of the restraining orders they issue. Current law allows such monitors for anyone convicted of violating restraining orders for domestic abuse or harassment.


An environmental group is praising state lawmakers, for restoring almost a million dollars in state funds for county conservation workers. Governor Scott Walker wanted to cut over $998,000 in funds which pay for all-or-part of the salaries of three conservationists in each county. The Joint Finance Committee has voted to re-instate the funding. Anne Sayers of the League of Conservation Voters said lawmakers noted, quote, "Our lakes, rivers, and streams can't protect themselves ... Every day, county conservationists are on the front lines working to prevent run-off that leads to polluted water and stinky lakes." Sayers said the funding still faces hurdles when the budget gets to the full Legislature. That's when members in both houses make deals and come up with their own compromise spending packages - and then agree to a final package which goes to Walker, who can pick-and-choose the items he wants to approve and veto.


The president of the Wisconsin Senate and one of his GOP colleagues want to remove a proposed state budget item to weaken consumer protections for rent-to-own customers. GOP Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah and Green Bay Senator Rob Cowles asked the two chairs of the Joint Finance Committee not to take up the rent-to-own changes tomorrow as scheduled. Instead, Ellis and Coles say it should be more fully debated as a separate bill. Among other things, Governor Scott Walker's budget plan would let rent-to-own contracts leave blank spaces for terms like interest rates, that could be filled in after customers sign them. The total price for eventually owning a rental item must still be disclosed. Even so, Milwaukee Assembly Democrat Jon Richards says it's like having people sign blank checks - and one of Walker's fellow Republicans, Brookfield Representative Dale Kooyenga said he did not think the blank spaces were anyone's intention. He said he still supports the provision, but he'd move to require rent-to-own firms to spell out their terms before customers sign for them. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the measure would prevent spouses from learning that their husbands-or-wives signed to rent-to-own contracts - even though spouses remain liable under Wisconsin's community property law. Also, state officials could not close centers which violate disclosure laws on purpose. Walker's office did not comment on his proposal. A spokesman for Rent-a-Center said his company would never ask people to approve terms without knowing them in advance.


Opponents of the national education standards that Wisconsin adopted packed an informational hearing today, where lawmakers were told how the Badger State is faring. All but five states have adopted the national voluntary standards, which call for basic requirements in math and English - plus a greater emphasis on analytical reading and writing skills. Wisconsin adopted the standards in 2011. And while there's been no major push to repeal them here, other states are getting more complaints about the standards. Some states are working to eliminate them, as critics say the standards are too easy. But no state has taken such a big move yet. Almost 40 Wisconsin Tea Party groups have called for an investigation, saying the standards provide lower expectations and less local control for districts. Minnesota teacher Karen Schroeder of the Advocates for Academic Freedom said the federal government should have never interfered in local schools. On the other side was Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Fordham Institute. She said the standards are a big improvement over what Wisconsin used to have.