Fire Safety Bill A Casualty of Late Night Trick
By State Senator Julie Lassa
The final days of the legislative session are always hectic and frustrating, and this year the craziness is made even worse by Republican leadership’s insistence on going home early. The Assembly Republicans announced that they’re already done working for the year. As a result, many proposals are in limbo, and may even die. That includes a bill that some young people in the City of Pittsville have been trying to get passed for nearly eight years.
When one of their classmates died in a tragic house fire that may have been caused by a novelty lighter, the young students approached Pittsville Fire Chief Jerry Minor to ask what they could do to prevent other kids from being hurt or killed. Chief Minor asked me and other local legislators to introduce a bill to ban the sale of novelty lighters to minors.
Novelty lighters are products that look very much like toys but are really cigarette lighters. They come in a variety of colorful shapes: mobile phones, fishing lures, cartoon characters, even rubber ducks. Naturally, children are attracted to these lighters, and because they look so much like toys adults are often fooled into thinking they are safe for kids to play with.
Working with fire safety experts and the lighter industry trade group, I drafted a bill that would prohibit the sale of novelty lighters to children, and would make it illegal to display them in a retail store where children have access to them. Seventeen other states currently have such a ban. The state’s leading fire fighter, fire safety, and medical groups support the bill.
I have reintroduced the bill each session, and Chief Minor and the students have come to the State Capitol to testify before legislative committees about the need to keep these lighters out of the hands of children. This session, the bill was only one vote away from passage – a vote by the full Assembly. With the strong bipartisan support this common-sense legislation had garnered, success finally seemed to be at hand.
And then – end-of-session craziness struck. Near midnight on what Assembly Republicans announced was their last session day for the year, the novelty lighter bill was finally taken up. Suddenly, the Republican leaders announced they were going to caucus. When they returned, they adjourned the session without taking a final vote on passage of the bill.
What happened? The bill’s Assembly lead author, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) was quoted as telling the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune that Rep. Kevin Petersen (R-Waupaca) insisted that the only way he would agree to the vote was if it was done by roll call, which meant legislators would have their votes officially recorded. For whatever reason, once the Assembly Republicans knew they would have to stand up publically to protect kids from a fire hazard, their support for the bill died. According to the newspaper, Rep. Krug said the bill “isn’t very Republican-friendly.”
Why in the world should Republicans object to keeping children away from objects that can cause serious injury or death? The bill was written with the consultation of the lighter industry trade group. It passed unanimously in two committee votes, as it did in the full Senate. At the public hearings on the bill, no business or industry groups testified in opposition. Chief Minor and the students who have worked on this bill for years were understandably shocked and disappointed at seeing the bill come so close to passage, only to be killed by a procedural trick in the middle of the night.
This is only one measure of many that will languish if Assembly Republicans don’t come back into session. The 2015-16 Legislature is officially in session through April. Legislation that people care about – to repair our infrastructure, improve our schools and revive our economy – has been left undone. If Assembly Republicans care about kids – if they care about all their constituents – they should come back and do their jobs.