By Molly Beck
MADISON – Assembly lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday that would penalize cities and towns that reduce funding for police departments.
The Republican bill, approved 61-37, was introduced in response to calls in the months following the police killing of George Floyd to "defund the police," or change the way local governments respond to calls for help or alleged crimes in an effort to reduce the risk of police shootings amid a national reckoning over deaths of Black men by law enforcement.
The message alarmed police officers and their advocates, who say reducing funding for law enforcement will only result in higher crime and chaos in communities.
“Unfortunately 'defund the police' became a catchphrase for an awful lot of activists around the country after the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Tuesday. "We saw especially in places like Portland intense pressure on local elected officials to reduce funding for the police. Unfortunately even in Wisconsin we saw Madison and Milwaukee where they actually cut funding."
Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said if local governments don't receive more funding from the state budget written by Republican lawmakers, officials may make budgetary cuts based on their financial status which could result in wide-ranging spending cuts, including in police departments.
"If you don't want that (situation) to happen then fund them — at least keep up with inflation," he said. "If you want those positions to stay on a permanent basis, the state must fund them."
All Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. Nick Milroy of South Range, voted to pass the legislation. It now goes to Gov. Tony Evers' desk.
Under the bill, the amount of shared revenue municipalities receive from the state would be permanently reduced by the same amount local officials reduce funding for their law enforcement. The amount that would have gone to those cities and towns would then be redistributed to officials who did not reduce funding for police.
The bill does not provide an exemption for local officials who reduce funding for strictly budgetary reasons. It also does not explain how the state will track the spending.
Under the bill, municipalities also would be penalized if law enforcement budgets go unchanged but officials retain fewer officers, firefighters or emergency responders than in the previous year.
Much of the floor debate focused on crime rates in Milwaukee and city officials' decision to reduce the number of officers in the police department by 120 officers through attrition, a decision based in both financial and philosophical positions on the city council.
Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, pushed back against characterizations of the state's largest city as one that is too unsafe to live. Myers said like other large cities, Milwaukee has crime problems but isn't overrun.
"Stop playing with people," she said, arguing lawmakers should not micromanage local officials' budget decisions. "If Milwaukee does not succeed the state does not succeed. If Madison does not succeed, the state does not succeed."
$50M to buy idled Wisconsin Rapids paper mill
Assembly lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday that would provide $50 million in federal pandemic aid to a timber cooperative to purchase and upgrade a shuttered paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids that left 900 people without jobs and rocked the economy of the area.
But a memo by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau suggests that federal aid may not be allowed to be used to purchase the mill from Verso, which idled the mill in July after the coronavirus pandemic significantly decreased the need for its products, like printer paper.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she worries the bill will sell the area "false hope" if the funds end up being ineligible for the purchase. Shankland, Rep. Beth Meyers of Bayfield and Rep. Nick Milroy of South Range, all Democrats, ultimately joined Republicans to approve the bill.
The bill also authorizes the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to award a loan of up to $15 million to a cooperative or other eligible borrower to purchase another shuttered mill in Park Falls.
The legislation left Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers and saying their political adversaries weren’t doing enough to address the impact of the closure on the area's economy.
Republican Rep. Scott Krug of Nekoosa said Evers didn’t suggest an amendment for his bill until the night before Tuesday's vote.
Krug said he didn't believe the guidance from the federal Treasury department precluded his plan because the mill's closure was considered a direct impact from the pandemic.
Under Treasury guidance, recipients of the federal aid generally may not use the money for general economic development or workforce development. But the guidance also says recipients "must demonstrate that funding uses directly address a negative economic impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency, including funds used for economic or workforce development."
Democrats noted Evers offered funding for the Verso will weeks ago and the governor claimed Republicans endangered the project by rejecting Evers’ amendment that would have changed how it was funded.
“We can’t afford for anyone to play politics with our state’s economic recovery,” Evers said in a statement. “We had a great opportunity to get things done, support our paper industry, and protect good jobs for families in our state—it's unfortunate all of that lost out to partisan politics today.”
Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said lawmakers were using the legislation to try to press Evers into helping the paper mill.
“The bill that’s coming now forces his hand,” Vos said.
Lawmakers on Tuesday also passed bills that bans food manufacturers from calling their products milk unless the liquid is derived from a cow, and meat unless made from animals. A third bill passed Tuesday would bar manufacturers from calling products dairy unless cow's milk was used.
Other bills approved Tuesday include:
- Assembly Bill 163, which allows Department of Natural Resources officials and local government agents to shoot beaver and muskrats if they are damaging highways.
- Senate Bill 14, which would expand the list of people who may perform marriage ceremonies to include a mej koob, who negotiates terms of marriages in Hmong communities. Currently, the list includes clergy, the two marrying parties themselves, a judge and a court commissioner.
- Senate Bill 15, which lowers the age at which teenagers may obtain a driver's instruction permit to 15. Current law requires a student by 15 years and 6 months old.
Patrick Marley and Hope Karnopp of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.