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Government and Political Roundup: Farm Bill battle now between conference committees

It now appears that the battle over the Farm Bill will be fought in a House-Senate conference committee. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday he would not block passage of a new five-year series of U-S agricultural policies. The House could take up its version of the Farm Bill as early as Monday. Boehner said this week that he strongly opposes a market stabilization program for the dairy industry - which could order reductions in milk output when high supplies drive down prices. Boehner says he has a number of concerns about the Farm Bill - but he'd rather see the negotiating process continue than simply doing nothing, and having the current programs continue. Last fall, Congress granted a one-year extension for the 2008 farm policy package, after the two parties could not agree on a new one. The Senate voted earlier this week on its version of the new Farm Bill. Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson was among 27 senators voting no. He said the package had too much funding for food stamps, despite a 400-million dollar annual reduction that was passed.


The Wisconsin Assembly is expected to vote today on three bills that chip away at abortion rights. One bill would require abortion candidates to have ultra-sounds, so they can see the physical features of the babies they want to abort. The same measure requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of their clinics. Planned Parenthood says its Appleton clinic has no such doctors, and they'll have to close that facility if the bill becomes law. The Senate passed the bill yesterday as minority Democrats yelled during the roll call vote, complaining that they didn't have enough time to debate the measure. Another bill that's up in the Assembly today would ban the use of tax money to cover abortions in public employee health insurance plans. The same measure would let religious groups opt out of a requirement to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives. The third bill would ban abortions simply because the mother didn't want the gender of the unborn child.


Wisconsin political candidates can get more money from individual donors, under a bill passed by the Assembly yesterday. A scaled-down package of Republican election reforms was passed by a voice vote without almost no debate. It now goes to the Senate. Among other things, the bill tentatively scraps the idea of bringing back the photo I-D mandate for voting, while letting poor people vote without I-D's by signing affidavits about their status. The package also would have restricted hours for early voting. Republicans agreed to wait until at least this fall to consider those controversial changes, if they come back at all. Instead, they pushed for a doubling of allowable campaign contributions by individuals. Donors to statewide candidates could give 20-thousand-dollars per cycle, two-thousand to Senate candidates, and a-thousand to Assembly hopefuls. Those limits would be automatically adjusted for inflation in the future. Milwaukee Democrat JoCasta Zamarippa was the only lawmaker to discuss the new bill before the vote. She called it a "mixed bag." Zamarippa said she did not want more money in politics. However, she noted that donors to individual candidates are disclosed, while those to special interest campaign advertisers are not. Afterward, three Democrats said they would have voted no, had their votes been recorded. Amy Sue Vruwink of Milladore, Chris Taylor of Madison, and Janet Bewley of Ashland said there's nothing in the bill that will restore the public's confidence in the integrity of the voting system.


State legislative attorneys question whether a last-minute item in the proposed state budget is constitutional. The measure says that over 170 families cannot win product liability suits against the lead-based paint industry, unless those families can identify the manufacturer of the paint which made their children sick. Republicans decided in 2011 to nullify an old Supreme Court ruling, and require the paint identification in future cases. The new budget measure applies retroactively to cases filed between 2006-and-2011. Yesterday, the non-partisan Legislative Council said it might be unconstitutional to change the legal playing field that far back. Peter Earle, who represents lead-based paint victims, says he'll challenge the budget measure if it's approved - and he believes he'll win. If he does, Earle says taxpayers would have to cover the costs of his legal challenge. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says lawmakers will most likely press ahead with the measure. Vos, who's a landlord, says he considers Earle's cases against paint-makers to be frivolous. Vos says lawmakers should try to fix problems even if a court may rule against them later.


The state Assembly has voted to make Wisconsin's Lemon Law a little sweeter for auto-makers. The lower house voted 88-to-8 yesterday in favor of a watered-down package that eliminates double-damages against car companies that don't provide either refunds or replacements within 30 days when new vehicles go bad. The time limit to provide replacements would be extended to 45 days. Also, the amount of time to file lawsuits would be reduced from six years to three. Several other provisions were dropped in negotiations with trial lawyers. Assembly Republican Bill Kramer of Waukesha and Senate Republican Jerry Petrowski of Marathon proposed identical bills aimed at reducing large settlements in Lemon Law cases. Vince Megna, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in these cases, says the double-damage provision often resulted in early settlements - and without the provision, he expects cases to drag out in court longer. The Senate takes up the bill next. All eight no votes in the Assembly came from Democrats.


A bill to increase weekly unemployment benefits, with new limits on eligibility, is on its way to Governor Scott Walker. The state Assembly gave final legislative approval to the measure yesterday on a 61-to-35 vote. The bill is designed to have fewer people collecting benefits, so the state is in a better position to pay back a half-billion dollars it owes to the federal government for keeping the benefits going during the Great Recession. The bill increases weekly payments by one-to-seven-dollars, with a maximum benefit of 370-dollars. It also toughens the standards for those who apply for unemployment after rejecting job offers. The bill also repeals an extra 26 weeks of benefits while getting job training. Federal stimulus dollars paid for those benefits, but the funding ran dry a while back. Supporters say the package will ease a financial burden on businesses which pay into the state's unemployment fund. Opponents of the new limits say it's the wrong time to adopt them, while jobless rates are still relatively high and job growth lags behind other states.


Radcliffe Haughton is having his day at the State Capitol. He's the gunman who killed himself, his estranged wife, and two other women at a spa in Brookfield last October. Today, the state Assembly will consider three bills which supporters say could have prevented the Haughton massacre. One would allow prosecutors to give juries more evidence of alleged previous abuse by defendants. Another measure would force police to explain themselves when they don't arrest somebody at a domestic abuse scene. A current state law requires arrests in most domestic calls. The new bill says that if an arrest is not made, officers would have their local district attorneys why. That measure comes after Brown Deer Police went to the Haughton residence almost 25 times in 11 years, and never made any arrests. Also, statewide training standards would be created for officers who handle domestic abuse cases. Temporary restraining orders would not expire when a different judge is asked to review them. Assembly Republican Andre Jacque of De Pere proposed all three bills - and they've generally received strong support from his colleagues in both parties.