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Northwoods Political Digest

November 15, 2019

Evers signs executive order relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion 

Gov. Tony Evers this week signed an executive order relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion in state government, which, among other things, requires state agencies to develop and implement equity and inclusion action plans.

It also directs the Wisconsin Department of Administration to develop and provide mandatory equity and inclusion training for all state agency employees, and creates the Governor's Advisory Council on Equity and Inclusion.

“Ensuring our state workforce not only reflects the folks we serve, but implements culturally responsive and equitable policies, is critical for our state government to be effective,” Evers said. “I look forward to the progress of the advisory council and these state agencies as we work together to build more inclusive work environments that empower folks of diverse backgrounds to thrive in their workplaces.”

Democrats assail “do-nothing” GOP Assembly

Republicans ended the final Assembly floor day until mid-January 2020 without taking up the major issues facing the people of Wisconsin, according to Democrats who had urged the body to take up and pass bills proposed by Gov. Tony Evers.

Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said Evers’ agenda had overwhelming public support, including Medicaid Expansion, legalizing medical marijuana, and closing the dark store loophole, but Republicans chose to ignore the people and take a two-month break.

“People in Wisconsin work hard, and they have an expectation that elected officials will work just as hard to take on the key issues facing our state,” Neubauer said. “Instead of working between the holidays like the rest of Wisconsin, the Assembly Republicans are avoiding their jobs and taking a two-month vacation.”

This fall, Neubauer said, legislative Democrats introduced priorities to build a better Wisconsin, called Forward Together. She said the plan reflects the will of the people, based on feedback from across the state.

“There are urgent issues facing Wisconsin, and Democrats have introduced serious proposals to address these issues,” she said. “It’s sad that Republicans are choosing to act as a ‘do-nothing’ Legislature, instead of taking action to serve their constituents.”

Everyone in Wisconsin deserves a responsive state government that listens to the issues that matter most to them, Neubauer said. 

“I’ll be working, like the rest of Wisconsin, and I hope my Republican colleagues decide to do the same,” she said.

Sargent says Wisconsin is a hub for cannabis innovation

After the Assembly passed a bipartisan bill to update and address some of the obstacles being faced in the hemp industry, state Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) says Wisconsin has the opportunity to be the hemp and cannabis hub of the Midwest, as demonstrated by the booming and successful hemp industry that has already begun in the state thanks to the Wisconsin Hemp Pilot Research Program. 

“With Wisconsin’s rich farming heritage, in addition to its innovative entrepreneurs and business owners, Wisconsin has a long history of getting things done and being a pioneering leader for our nation,” Sargent said. “Historically, hemp production in Wisconsin has been a crucial part of our collective identity and brought unprecedented economic stability to our diverse communities.”

Sargent said that, after years of mindless federal prohibition, hemp is once again becoming a vital aspect of the state, from personal care products to sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics.

But Sargent said more is needed, including full legalization of marijuana.

“The stunning positive impact of hemp production in our state proves that Wisconsin is the perfect site for full-cannabis legalization,” she said. “With Wisconsin’s strong agricultural roots and hardworking mindset, our state has the landscape and dedicated labor force to be at the forefront of cannabis innovation and production.”

Sargent says legislation she has introduced to fully legalize cannabis in Wisconsin would bring a vastly profitable sector for agricultural capabilities and producers, and could further the remarkable successes the state has seen within the hemp program.

“Cannabis is bringing, and will continue to bring, many opportunities to our state, and I look forward to Wisconsin taking further steps to legalize opportunity in our state,” she said.

Quinn: TEA grant bill fosters economic development

State Rep. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) say that one of their bills that passed the Legislature this week will ensure that a critical economic development program will continue. 

The bill updates language in the Transportation Facilities Economic Assistance and Development (TEA grant) program, which is used to improve highways, airports, or harbors, or provide certain other assistance for the improvement of such transportation facilities or certain rail property or railroad tracks.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), which administers the grants, has always provided them on the basis of either new jobs being created or old jobs retained. However, due to unclear language in the statute text, DOT believed the program could only legally provide grants based on creating new jobs, rather than including retained jobs.

“Both new and existing jobs are important for rural communities, and rewarding projects that only benefit new jobs ignores the contributions of our existing businesses,” Quinn said. “When rural companies are struggling to stay competitive, helping our neighbors keep their jobs is just as important as creating new ones.”

The current biennial budget for the TEA grant program is $6.8 million. In the 30 year life of the program, TEA funding has been utilized in almost every corner of Wisconsin, including projects in Spooner, Rice Lake, Barron, Chetek, Amery, and Clear Lake.

The bill was introduced with bipartisan support, and passed unanimously in both the Senate and Assembly. The bill will next go to the governor’s desk to be signed.

“This is a great example of finding issues that we can work together on,” Quinn said. “Both my Republican colleagues, as well as Democrats and the DOT administration, saw the importance of making sure we fully support rural economies, and correct the language of the TEA grant program.”

WILL sues state election commission

On behalf of three Wisconsin voters, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has filed a lawsuit in Ozaukee County circuit court, contending that the state election commission is putting Wisconsin’s election integrity at risk by intentionally ignoring state law to allow voter registrations at old addresses to remain active.

The lawsuit is a result of the Wisconsin Election Commission dismissing a complaint made in October.

“The Wisconsin Election Commission was warned in October that they were acting contrary to state law by allowing voter registrations at old addresses to remain active beyond 30 days,” said WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg. “Instead of reversing course, the Wisconsin Election Commission has stubbornly doubled down. This lawsuit is about accountability, the rule of law, and clean and fair elections.”

According to WILL, Wisconsin must maintain accurate and up-to-date voter registrations precisely because the state has made it easy to vote and easy to register. 

Ensuring that voters are voting from the proper residence is critical because the state has an obvious interest in only counting the ballots of eligible voters; it enfranchises voters by reducing the likelihood of lines and confusion at the polls; it allows election administrators the ability to better plan for election day, the group states.

To this end, WILL states, Wisconsin law established procedures to ensure and maintain accurate voter rolls. Wisconsin participates with 28 other states in the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). ERIC flags “movers” — individuals who report an official government transaction from an address different from their voter registration address — to state election agencies.

The Wisconsin Election Commission first reviews the information on “movers” for accuracy and reliability. State law then provides specific direction to WEC on how to handle “movers” flagged by ERIC.

On June 11, 2019, WILL contends, the Wisconsin Election Commission decided, contrary to state law, that changes in eligibility for a voter flagged as a “mover” by ERIC will not occur for 12 to 24 months.

WILL filed a complaint on behalf of the three Wisconsin voters to the Wisconsin Election Commission on Oct. 16, 2019, explaining how the adopted policy change is contrary to state law. WEC dismissed WILL’s complaint, without ever dealing with the merits, the group states.

Courts creation bill clears legislative hurdle

This week the State Assembly voted to approve a bill authored by Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) that permits the creation of up to 12 new circuit court branches, four in 2021, four in 2022, and four in 2023.

“New circuit court judges are direly needed,” Tusler said. “The last time circuit court judgeships were created was in 2007, and workload has only increased in the last decade.”

The bill allows the director of state courts to create an additional branch in a county if 1) the county board has passed a resolution supporting an additional branch; and 2) the county will have appropriate facilities in place by May 31 of the year in which the branch is created. 

A county may also be required to apply for a Drug Treatment Court or Treatment Alternatives and Diversion Program grant if it does not already have such a program.

All judges will be elected in the spring election of the year the new branch is created.

“For places like Marathon County, an additional judge would go a long way toward preventing backups in the court system,” Petrowski said. “By processing cases faster, we can save on local jail costs and better provide swift justice to both victims and the accused as required under the 6th Amendment.”

Since 1989, 33 bills have been introduced creating additional circuit court branches. Only nine of those 33 bills have been enacted, the most recent being in 2007. Different from past attempts, the proposal passed by the Assembly leaves the discretion to the director of state courts to determine which counties are most in need of a branch, not the Legislature.

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