Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Legislature May Debate Few Fall-Session Issues

Short fall legislative session doesn't leave a lot of room for action on major issues.

By - Sep 30th, 2019 02:27 pm
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Blink or get busy and you could miss the Legislature’s fall session.

The Assembly and Senate may each be in session only one or two days in October and November.

Two major reasons:

*Republicans in control of the Legislature are leery of passing any GOP priorities that would be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

*Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has a new priority – getting elected to replace retiring 5th District Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner 13 months from now. Fitzgerald will make sure nothing passes the Senate between now and then that could hurt would his chances of going to Washington.

That explains why Fitzgerald quickly broke with one member of his caucus, Sen. Pat Testin of Stevens Point, on legalizing medical marijuana.

In a statement, Testin recounted how his grandfather, career legislative staffer Blair Testin, eased the pain of cancer treatment with illegal marijuana before he died in 2000.

Responding to the first-term Testin, who is up for re-election next year, Fitzgerald repeated that he does not support legalizing medical marijuana and most Senate Republicans agree with him.

Translation: No way the Senate will legalize medical marijuana, Pat.

Instead, Fitzgerald floated the idea of passing a new tax cut when the Legislature reconvenes next year, if revenue estimates remain strong. General-fund tax collections jumped a stunning 7.4% in the year that ended June 30.

Evers questioned whether a new tax cut is responsible, citing recession predictions by many economists.

Let’s divide potential fall session issues subjects into three categories – “action possible,” “wild-card issues” and “no chance.”

And, remember the old Capitol rule that, for any bill to become law, it must be passed by one house of the Legislature by end of the year, so it has a chance of passing the other house the following year.

Possible action:

*Recommendations of Assembly water-quality task force: Evers has declared this the “year of clean water” and groundwater is increasingly being found as dangerously contaminated in the districts of Republican legislators, so new efforts to fight the problem may be acted on.

*Recommendations of Assembly suicide-prevention task force: Some new spending to fight the growing number of tragedies will be approved, although Assembly Republicans will have to be the first to act.

*Tougher drunk-driving laws: Will this be the year the crusade by Republican Rep. Jim Ott, who at a minimum wants first-offense drunk drivers to have to appear in court, gets that passed, at least by the Assembly?

*Sex-assault kit testing deadlines: Republican and Democratic legislators negotiated a package with Democratic Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul that would specify time lines, and give sex-assault victims options, on the testing of rape kits. But will Republican leaders let Democrat Kaul claim any type of legislative win?

*Senate confirmation of governor’s cabinet secretaries: Although they have been on the job for nine months, none of the Evers appointees running state agencies have been confirmed by the Senate. There appears to be Senate votes to confirm them, if Fitzgerald schedules those votes.

Wild-card issues:

*Release of police body-camera videos: There may be a fragile compromise between law enforcement agencies and activists who want to monitor police incident responses on deadlines to make those videos public, but will it hold long enough to get passed by one house?

*Limits on e-cigarettes, vaping: As federal officials, governors and health officials nationwide sort through medical reports of young adults hospitalized with what they say appear to be vaping-related illnesses, will legislators enact any new limits on sales in Wisconsin?

*Conforming Wisconsin hemp growing laws to federal code: If Wisconsin doesn’t align itself with the new federal law on growing hemp – a change pushed by Testin and Republican Rep. Tony Kurtz – the future of that crop in the state is uncertain. Police and sheriffs departments seem to be happy with a compromise version of the bill.

*Legal medical marijuana: It’s a long shot, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos could try to get a medical marijuana bill through the Assembly, despite Fitzgerald’s opposition. Vos opposes legalizing recreational marijuana, however.

No chance of consideration: Universal background checks to buy a gun. A “red flag” law allowing judges to prohibit gun possession by those found dangerous to themselves or others. Legalizing recreational marijuana. And, expanding Medicaid with federal cash – a top Evers priority.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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