By Steven Walters, Apr 26, 2020
A bill in the Legislature giving public defenders pay raises totaling $2.5 million in the budget year beginning July 1 is just one vote away from becoming law.
But that final vote must occur in the state Senate, which had about 160 Assembly-passed bills pending before it in late March
Then, the COVID-19 health emergency closed the Capitol, forced lawmakers to honor Gov. Tony Evers safer-at-home emergency order and ended hopes of Senate leaders for a normal, orderly end to the 2019-20 session.
Since then, the Senate has met only once in a historical online session—with only two senators in a Capitol hearing room—to pass an emergency bill clearing the way for state government to share in the first, $2.2 trillion federal COVID-19 economic stimulus bill.
There is no sign of when—or if—the Republican-controlled Senate will meet again to consider another Covid-19 bill or to pass any of the 160 Assembly-passed bills one Senate vote away from going to Gov. Tony Evers.
“It’s still Sen. (Scott) Fitzgerald’s intention to bring the Senate back before the end of the year to finish business,” said Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Republican Senate majority leader.
Even though the safer-at-home edict means state government will collect less in taxes, jeopardizing future spending commitments, State Public Defender Kelli Thompson remains optimistic that lawyers who represent those who can’t afford their own criminal advocates will eventually get those pay raises.
“We have tried to stay in contact with legislators,” Thompson said last week.
“Quite frankly, I can’t think of telling staff right now that (those raises) might be completely dead at the same time I am asking them to risk their own health and welfare to continue to represent clients.”
Republican Sen. Jerry Petrowski sponsored the pay-raise bill, saying the shortage of public defenders in Marathon County had caused trial delays of up to eight weeks.
Technically, the 160 Assembly-passed bills that need Senate votes to become law died when the Legislature formally adjourned March 26, said Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk.
Renk said they could only be revived and passed if legislators called an “extraordinary session,” which legislators called to pass the COVID-19 response bill.
But a list of Assembly-passed bills awaiting final Senate votes includes some important public-policy initiatives:
- Clean water: A bipartisan Assembly task force—chaired by Republican Rep. Todd Novak of Dodgeville and Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point—held public hearings statewide on the growing problems of wells polluted by nitrates, bacteria from animal and human waste and lethal PFA compounds that do not break down.
Calling it a “first start” to address groundwater contamination, task force recommendations included more cash to replace polluted wells, hiring more county conservation officers, creating a state Office of Water Policy and pilot programs and grants to reduce nitrate pollutants. None of these can become law without Senate action.
Shankland said her senator, Republican Pat Testin of Stevens Point had assured her that the clean-water package would get Senate consideration.
An aide to Novak said he “is hopeful that the Senate will meet and hold a vote on the water quality legislation that passed the Assembly earlier this year with overwhelming bipartisan support.”
- Farm aid: Reacting to a farm crisis made worse by the COVID-19 emergency, the Assembly responded to a special-session call by Evers by passing several bills. They would give grants to dairy processing plants, cut property taxes on farm buildings by $30 million and fund a Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports.
Those bills are a priority of Republicans like Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green and Rep. Travis Tranel, a dairy farmer from Cuba City.
- Regulate pharmacy benefit managers: Sponsored by two-thirds of the 99-member Assembly, the bill would let the state insurance commissioner regulate professionals who play key roles in what customers pay for prescriptions. The compromise took two years to negotiate.
- Tax credit for volunteer firefighters and emergency responders: Legislators from rural areas say this would help their short-staffed fire departments recruit new members.
About 70 resolutions praising individuals, organizations and sports teams are also pending in the Senate.
Ironically, one of them would honor the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, whose members are on the front line of fighting Covid-19.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .