MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. –  Between heated debates on school safety and last-minute amendments expanding firearm background checks, the state Assembly in “extraordinary session” Thursday passed some key conservative reforms and tax breaks for Wisconsin families and shoppers.

But the Assembly put the ball back in the Senate’s court in crafting a controversial measure tied to a school safety package that would expand background checks for rifles and shotguns. Thursday was supposed to be a final floor day for the Republican-controlled Legislature, but the Senate would have to come back one more time if the background check bill has a chance at getting to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) did not return an email seeking comment about the Senate’s intentions.

The Assembly, with Democrats joining, did pass the key elements of Walker’s school security plan, including the creation of an Office of School Safety led by the Department of Justice, which would administer $100 million in state grants to beef up security at Wisconsin’s schools. The safety initiatives passed more than a month after a student gunman fatally shot 17 people at a Florida high school.

Democrats called for more gun control measures, including gun bans.

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Assembly Republicans offered a bill that Vos says would do in Wisconsin what Congress appears poised to do nationally: tap into a federal database to expand background checks to long guns. Information would be shared through the National Instant Criminal Background System Section (NICS) managed by the FBI.

Vos, who coyly told reporters Thursday at a pre-floor session presser they would have to wait and see whether a background check bill was in the offing, later said the bill is about enhancing the state system already in place.

“Nothing in this proposal will do anything to ban a person lawfully allowed to own a firearm,” the speaker said.

The legislation also ties background checks to state court records.

“We will have our people who purchase a rifle also ran through our handgun hotline in the state of Wisconsin,” said Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), referring to the background check tool run by the state Department of Justice. “We are doing this so anyone who should not have a weapon, a criminal-type person, will not get a weapon.”

But conservative lawmakers who spoke to MacIver News Service, some in the Assembly, some in the Senate, expressed concerns about the scope of the legislation.

Groundbreaking Tort Reform

The Assembly – again – passed two key conservative reform measures during its “extraordinary session.”

On a party-line vote, the Republican majority approved an amended Senate version of a tort reform bill that proponents say will reduce litigation expenses and bring common sense back to the legal process. Assembly Bill 773 now heads to the governor’s desk.

Civil justice reformers celebrated the legislation’s passage.

“AB 773 is a major victory for small to large Wisconsin businesses and will greatly reduce the cost of litigation. The legislation brings Wisconsin in line with the vast majority of other states when it comes to its discovery procedures and class action rules,”  Bill G. Smith, president of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council and state director for National Federation of Independent Business-Wisconsin, said in a statement.

Among other reforms, the bill takes on the escalating costs of discovery, or the pre-trial, evidence-gathering process. The legislation updates and brings Wisconsin in line with the federal civil code on discovery, disclosure, and class actions.

The bill would make Wisconsin one of the first states in the nation to bring transparency to litigation financing. These big bets on big litigation payouts are done in the shadows by law firms and investors who provide plaintiffs upfront cash in return for pushing potentially hefty-settlement lawsuits.

Assembly Bill 773 requires such “fishing” litigation agreements be disclosed to the parties unless stipulated or ordered by the court. Unlike discovery law, the federal government would be playing catch-up to Wisconsin on litigation finance disclosure.

“At the urging of U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the arm of the federal judiciary that oversees procedural rules recently decided to examine whether the court system should require all civil litigants to reveal financing deals with outsiders who have wagered on legal outcomes,” the Wall Street Journal noted in a piece this week headlined, “Lawsuit Funding, Long Hidden in the Shadows, Faces Calls for More Sunlight.”

The story notes that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is considering legislation that would demand class-action plaintiffs to disclose such funding sources. The bill previously passed in the House amid heavy objections from trial lawyers who claim the disclosure campaign would stifle legal action under the guise of transparency.

Consistent Employment Law

On yet another party-line vote, the Assembly passed legislation aimed at bringing statewide uniformity to employment law.

The lower house originally passed the measure late last month, on what was supposed to be the Assembly’s final day of the session. But an amendment tacked on to the bill that would have exempted tech giant Foxconn from portions of the reforms was sacked earlier this week by the Senate, which sent the clean bill back to the Assembly.

Proponents say the measure would end the ‘patchwork’ of employment laws that create confusion, kill competition and drive up business costs based on the whims of local government.

Democrats, unions, community organizers and other opponents claim Assembly Bill 748 is an assault on Wisconsin’s tradition of home rule. “The party of local control no more,” said Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), castigating Republicans and the bill during Senate floor debate.

Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), the bill’s co-author, said Republicans are indeed the party of local control, but employment law is a statewide concern.

“People view Wisconsin both internally and externally based on how uniform we are in employment law,” he told MacIver News last week on the Vicki McKenna Show. “When it comes to employment law and mandates on employers, we want to have uniformity throughout the state because it just makes it easier to do business here.”

Local governments could no longer create policy on labor agreements, “living wages,” rules on worker scheduling and a long list of other employment law that are more stringent or burdensome than state statute.

Tax Relief Passes

Shoppers and parents of dependent children will see some tax savings later this year after the Assembly passed a Senate-tweaked tax relief bill.

The legislation provides a $100 per-child tax rebate, and a smaller sales tax holiday on certain items set for the first week in August. Assembly leadership had sought a broader $50 million sales tax holiday plan, but the Senate, lukewarm at best on the tax relief proposal, significantly trimmed the final version, to approximately $12 million.

Democrats blasted the $122 million tax rebate for families of dependent children 18 and under as an election year gimmick. In a theme reminiscent of congressional Democrats, Assembly liberals see the tax break as mere crumbs.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who is leaving the Assembly in his pursuit of a Senate seat, accused his colleagues on the left of exhibiting little empathy for low-income residents living on the margins.

“A couple hundred bucks may be the difference between finding your stuff on the curb or having one more month” of rent, Kooyenga said. While the fiscal conservative said the plan wasn’t his idea of a “tax utopia,” he agreed with fellow Republicans who said Wisconsin’s tax revenue surplus doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to the taxpayers.

“Many would have liked to see this money stay in Madison to be spent on the government’s priorities. Thankfully, that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be returned to the hardworking taxpayers, so they can spend it on their priorities,” Walker said in a statement, thanking his fellow Republicans in the Legislature for passing his proposal.

Unanimous Support

And the Assembly sent to the governor’s desk a package of juvenile corrections reform bills that will, among other things, lead to the closure of the troubled Lincoln Hills youth corrections center. The bi-partisan bill passed unanimously, 90-0.

“We aren’t just closing Lincoln Hills,” said Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), co-author of the legislation, in a statement. “We’re establishing a new way to deal with troubled youth. Juvenile offenders will be placed at state or county facilities based on the severity of their offense. The vision is to keep these youth closer to home, tied to community, and engaged in building positive life skills.”

The pricey plan, which would tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in bonding, would create regional youth facilities around the state, among other programming initiatives.

“Incarcerated youth will now have access to the services and rehabilitation they need while accomplishing these goals closer to their home and families,” Rep. Evan Goyke (D- Milwaukee), said in the statement. “This is a proven model in other States and we can now establish and implement ‘The Wisconsin Model.’”

M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.
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