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Hold Fire
Republicans are playing it safe as they wind down another year in control of the state Legislature.

These are quiet days in the Wisconsin state Legislature, and, perhaps as a consequence, bipartisanship is riding high. With half of the state Senate and all of the state Assembly – not to mention the offices of governor and attorney general – on the line come November, majority Republicans are unlikely to champion legislation that could alienate more moderate voters.

“I don’t think there’s going to be anything controversial,” says state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), consistently one of the more conservative and outspoken members of the Legislature. “Republicans are pretty skittish right now.”

In other words, don’t expect a repeat of 2013’s Act 37, which requires women who undergo abortions to first receive ultrasounds. As of press time, two other abortion-related proposals passed by the Assembly in late 2013 remain in deep freeze. The bills would prevent public employee health insurance plans from covering the procedure and also ban those performed because of the baby’s gender. Proponents point out that most terminated fetuses are female; critics say the measures would unfairly expose doctors to lawsuits.

Bills strengthening OWI penalties and relaxing limits on campaign contributions have also stalled in the Senate after eager endorsements in the more strident Assembly. Uncontroversial bills, such as state Rep. John Nygren’s (R-Marinette) proposals aimed at heroin deaths, are advancing far more quickly and with plenty of Democrats clambering aboard. Three Democrats from Madison and three from Milwaukee, including state Senators Lena Taylor and Tim Carpenter, have signed on as co-sponsors.

A first-term legislator from Milwaukee, Democrat Evan Goyke is testing the bipartisan waters with five bills intended to lessen the blight caused by abandoned homes. His ideas range from those that are easy for Republicans to swallow – such as greater powers for local governments to secure empty houses – to some that could be dead on arrival, such as requiring banks to post a $15,000 demolition bond when filing a foreclosure in circuit court.

“I don’t think my community has any time to be timid,” Goyke said in mid-January as he waited for Republicans to refer the five bills to a committee. A clock was ticking. Once 15 days had passed from the date of submission, the legislation would die by default. “It’s an uphill battle for the minority party to get a hearing on any bill,” he said.

However, on that same day, all five bills found a willing home, the Committee on Housing and Real Estate, chaired by Caucus Vice Chair John Murtha, another Republican Goyke will have to win over. Goyke may already have Grothman in his court, at least on the bill empowering local governments to batten down the hatches. “It’s something people should have been ringing the bell on earlier,” Grothman says.

The demolition bond is another issue, and one that lobbyists representing lending institutions will try to limit, if they see it gaining momentum. “We’re in the mumbling stages” of opposition, says Goyke, who has signed up Republicans as co-sponsors on two of the bills: state Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), who’s not seeking re-election, and state Rep. Andre Jacque (R-DePere), a frequent source of controversy. Jacque’s past plans to ban the use of fetal tissues in scientific research and enshrine English as the official language of Wisconsin are the sort of thing many Republicans hope to keep a lid on this year.

But don’t count out school choice. A plan arose in January to remake accountability for K-12 schools in a way that would benefit charter schools, a sign that Republicans could use the legislative lull to champion choice. File this move under the ongoing effects of Act 10. Weaker teachers unions mean a weaker response by Democrats on choice – and less confrontation.  

This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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(Illustration by Archiwiz/Shutterstock)

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