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Northwoods Political Digest

February 21, 2020

Children’s health effort receives Assembly support

The state Assembly has approved two efforts led by state Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) that he says will protect children’s health. 

One of the efforts passed includes part of the Supporting Children’s Health by Ousting Outdated Lead (SCHOOL) Acts to address lead in school drinking water by requiring testing and, if necessary, requiring that contaminated water sources be taken offline and replaced with clean water sources while encouraging long-term remediation.

“Lead exposure is bad for all ages, but children are particularly susceptible to negative consequences, including changes in their physical development leading to health challenges and stunting of their mental growth causing behavioral issues throughout their childhood, teenage years, and beyond,” Cowles said. “With the SCHOOL Act, the Assembly has advanced a bipartisan solution to give our youth a brighter future by reducing lead exposure and giving parents and guardians the peace of mind that their kids won’t drink lead-laden water while at school.”

Another effort lead in the Senate that was passed by the Assembly, AB 797, which Cowles authored with Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), prohibits the sale of coal tar-based sealant products beginning on Jan. 1, 2021, and prohibits the application of such products beginning on July 1, 2021. 

Those products have been shown to increase the risk of cancer among children and cause harm to water quality and aquatic life.

“The long-term costs to the state from overexposure to PAH in health care expenses, lost wages leading to lost productivity and tax revenue, and environmental remediation expenditures are substantial,” Cowles said. “Some of these costs can be avoided by passing this legislation, and in the process, we can ensure a healthier future for Wisconsin’s youth and cleaner waterways for recreation and aquatic wildlife.”

Bill aims to lower drug costs

A bill by state Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) to lower drug costs for consumers across the state has passed the Assembly unanimously.

“A small town pharmacy owner first told me about Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) and their unfair business practices,” Schraa said. “It really hit home when our PBM denied medication to my wife and daughter, which resulted in serious health issues.”

Schraa said many of his colleagues shared heart-wrenching stories of how PBM policies and practices have hurt their constituents, their family members, and themselves. 

“It’s time for a change,” he said.

His bill would require that all PBMs be licensed by the state. It includes consumer protections such as allowing pharmacists to tell customers about lower cost alternatives and restricting formulary changes. PBMs would also have to adhere to basic good business practices, including fair audit procedures and reporting kickbacks to the Commissioner of Insurance.

“Forty other states have enacted various PBM reforms,” Schraa said. “With 104 co-sponsors from both parties in the Assembly and Senate, it’s clear that Wisconsin legislators are concerned about protecting our citizens’ health.”

ACLU condemns proposed personhood amendment

The ACLU of Wisconsin has condemned a Wisconsin Assembly proposal to broaden the legal definition of personhood and grant legal rights to fertilized eggs. 

The ACLU says the “Personhood Amendment” is an attack on reproductive rights meant to ban abortion.

“Let’s be clear: the purpose of this extreme proposal is to ban all abortions and interfere with people’s personal, private medical decisions,” said Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “These so-called ‘personhood’ initiatives are so extreme and beyond the pale they have been overwhelmingly rejected by voters in states across the country.”

Deeply personal decisions like when and whether to start a family should be made by people and not dictated by politicians, Ott said. 

“We will continue to closely monitor this legislation and keep fighting to defend the reproductive rights of all Wisconsinites,” he said.

Ott said the ACLU has been vigorously fighting to protect reproductive freedom, which he says recently has come under siege in states across the country. In 2019, Ott said, the ACLU helped block abortion bans in Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah.

Joint Committee on Finance approves tax cut and farmer assistance 

State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, says the state’s budget surplus will be put to good use.

“A few weeks ago, the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) announced that state revenues were $818 million higher than expected,” Nygren said. “As we have historically done with surpluses, we are returning some of these additional revenues to the hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin. Since 2011, the LFB estimates that Republicans have cut taxes by a cumulative $13 billion.”

Yesterday’s package that the JFC passed represents a nearly $300 million tax cut package, Nygren said. 

The tax cut targets $250 million toward reducing income taxes for low and middle-income families. About $45 million would go to decrease personal property taxes. Combined with income tax cuts in the state budget the average filer will save $300 annually, Nygren said.

“Additionally, Republicans on the finance committee passed a number of bills aimed at helping struggling farmers across the state,” he said. “The struggles facing Wisconsin farmers are well documented and an issue that we have been working on addressing for some time.”

The new legislation includes a targeted tax credit for smaller farms, an increase in dairy processing grants, a new research effort for greater exports, and a tax credit meant to reduce health care costs. 

Other bills making their way through the process are tuition assistance for farm business management classes, truth-in-labeling bills, and new research positions at the UW-Extension in Madison.

“These important bills now head to the floors of the State Assembly and Senate where I anticipate they will pass,” Nygren said.

WILL sues Madison schools for violating parental rights

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), on behalf of a group of Madison parents, has filed a lawsuit in Dane County circuit court against the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) for adopting and implementing policies that violate the rights of district parents. 

The challenged MMSD policies enable children, of any age, to change their gender identity at school without parental notice or consent, and instruct district employees to conceal and even deceive parents about the gender identity their son or daughter has adopted at school, WILL says, arguing that the policies violate critical constitutionally recognized parental rights.

WILL represents 14 individual parents from eight families with students in MMSD.

“Madison schools have adopted policies that violate constitutionally recognized parental rights,” WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg said. “A public school district should not, and cannot, make decisions reserved for parents.”

In April 2018, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) adopted “Guidance and Policies to Support Transgender, Non-binary & Gender-Expansive Students.” Importantly, WILL asserts, the policy includes the following provisions: Children of any age can transition to a different gender identity at school, by changing their name and pronouns, without parental notice or consent.

In addition, WILL says, district employees are prohibited from notifying parents, without the child’s consent, that their child has or wants to change gender identity at school, or that their child may be dealing with gender dysphoria.

Finally, district employees are instructed to deceive parents by using the child’s legal name and pronouns with family, while using the different name and pronouns adopted by the child in the school setting, WILL contends.

The MMSD policy violates parents’ constitutionally protected rights in multiple ways, WILL contends, including that parents have the right to make important health-care decisions on their children’s behalf. 

“Transitioning to a different gender identity is a significant psychotherapeutic intervention that requires parental notice or consent,” WILL states. “There are multiple treatment options for gender dysphoria, some of which don’t involve transitioning, so parents must be involved in which treatment path to pursue.”

According to WILL, gender dysphoria is often associated with significant psychological distress and requires support from mental health professionals, and MMSD’s policy interferes with parents’ ability to provide the support their children may urgently need.

WILL says the policies also conflict with the “general rule (in Wisconsin) requiring parents to give consent to medical treatment for their children.”

“For some parents, gender identity issues also have religious significance,” WILL contends. “MMSD’s policy interferes with parents’ free-exercise rights to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs and to select a treatment approach consistent with those beliefs.”

WILL issued a demand letter to the school district on Dec. 18 urging the district to update and amend the above policies to avoid a lawsuit. MMSD responded on Jan. 31 that there would be no update to district policies.

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