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Big, Bold, and Bad: The New Wisconsin Way

(Photo: Scutter/flickr/cc)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says that, to win the Presidency, Republicans need to embrace “big, bold ideas” of the sort for which he has become known. Beyond appealing to his party’s base, this message seems to be inspiring his state’s GOP-controlled legislature.

In recent weeks, as Walker has been making the rounds laying the groundwork for a Presidential run, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have been busy shoring up the state’s credentials as a laboratory for ideas big and bold. Often these involve turning back the clock on things that formerly established Wisconsin’s reputation for good government.

Here is a partial list of recent initiatives launched or backed by Republicans in the state legislature that seem designed to put Wisconsin on the map as a place at war with its own progressive reputation.

Undermining tenure: Language added to the state budget bill on a party-line committee vote would strip academic tenure protections from state law and make it easier to lay off or fire tenured faculty. University of Wisconsin officials are scrambling to reaffirm their commitment to tenure though university policy, but already some academics are reconsidering their commitment to the state’s university system. The tenure changes and a $250 million UW funding cut helped drive the recent decision of two UW-Madison researchers to relocate their project to the University of Minnesota—along with $600,000 in annual outside funding. Academics continue to fight for tenure protections.

20-week abortion ban: The state Senate this week approved, on a 19-14 party-line vote, a bill to ban abortions in Wisconsin past 20 weeks of pregnancy. The majority ignored testimony that the bill was based on faulty science and would endanger women. There are no exceptions for when a pregnancy is caused by rape or incest, and no life and health exception for mothers apart from imminent death within 24 hours. Doctors must attempt to save the life of a fetus, even if that fetus has a terminal condition and even if this attempt will adversely affect the health of the mother. The bill now heads to likely approval in the state Assembly. Walker has promised to sign it.


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Guns galore: While a bill to require background checks on all state gun purchases is seen as dead on arrival despite overwhelming public support, Wisconsin Republicans are rushing to pass laws making it easier for people to obtain and wield deadly weapons. Both houses of the legislature have passed a bill to remove the state’s 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases, as well as a bill to allow off-duty and former police officers to carry guns on school grounds. And the Assembly just passed a bill to make it easier for people who have had their guns taken away by police to get them back; a Democrat-backed amendment to give the courts “discretion not to order a firearm returned if the seizure related to domestic violence” was shot down.

You’ll eat what we say: The state Assembly last month passed a bill to require those seeking public assistance in Wisconsin, including food stamps, to submit to drug testing, as well as a bill limiting what purchases people receiving federal food assistance can make. The second bill calls on the state to come up with a list of acceptable foods on which recipients must spend at least 67 percent of their benefit; and it specifically forbids the purchase of “crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish.” Walker separately proposed drug testing of public assistance recipients. Both measures would require waivers from the federal government.

The more the merrier? The Assembly this week passed a bill drafted by a legislative service agency and previously passed by the state Senate to kill the state’s Student Achievement Guarantee Program, or SAGE, which provides aid to schools that maintain small class sizes. In its place lawmakers created a new program that provides continued additional funding for low-income students but eliminates the requirement that class sizes be limited. The state Department of Public Instruction opposed the change. The bill now heads to Walker.

Killing the messenger: Perhaps the most respected state agency in Wisconsin is the Legislative Audit Bureau, which since 1965 has offered sound nonpartisan analyses of state government functions. Republican state Representatives David Craig and Adam Jarchow have said the agency does a “tremendous” job. Ironically, they said this in an email seeking cosponsors on a bill to mothball the agency in favor of partisan-appointed inspectors general. The proposal is widely seen as having something to do with the Audit Bureau’s role in pointing out massive mismanagement of Walker’s signature job-creation agency. This may be one idea too big, bold, and bad even for state Republicans, some of whom have reacted coolly.

Burn, baby burn: The Assembly this week passed a Republican bill to prohibit state environmental officials from toughening Wisconsin rules for residential wood heaters in response to new federal pollution limits. A fiscal note for the bill from the state Department of Natural Resources, controlled by Walker appointees, unhelpfully concludes: “DNR does not foresee long-term fiscal implications from this legislation, unless EPA determines that the state has violated the terms of its delegation and that Federal funding may therefore be withheld.” The bill now heads to the Senate.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders is editor of The Progressive.

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