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Wisconsin Senate approves one of eight bills to combat homelessness

Wisconsin Senate approves one of eight bills to combat homelessness

State Capitol Senate Chambers, Cap Times generic file photo (copy) (copy)

The Senate chambers at the state Capitol in Madison.

The Wisconsin state Senate has sent one of eight bills dedicated to providing more resources to homeless individuals to Gov. Tony Evers' desk, but it's unclear when or if the remaining legislation will be taken up by the chamber.

Meanwhile, senators also acted to limit the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, approved a bill that would require more transparency and restrictions on schools’ use of restraint and seclusion, and advanced two suicide prevention bills and one adoption effort that cleared the Assembly last week

Tuesday's actions on a host of bills during the Senate's first meeting of the year came after the chamber approved two of Evers' agency heads earlier in the day. 

One of the efforts that faced a heated, nearly two-hour discussion on the floor seeks to fund grants for homeless shelters. While the bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support, 31-0, the comments came as Democrats urged Republicans to act on the remainder of the legislation in the $3.75 million annual package that cleared the state Assembly over the summer

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said the state's shelters and service agencies need help beyond what would come from a single bill, and she bemoaned "the cruelty" of not doing more. 

"There’s not a sense of urgency to do it in a timely fashion that’s compassionate," the La Crosse Democrat said. 

The package is based on recommendations from the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, which was created in 2017 under legislation introduced by Republicans. But some GOP senators have raised concerns about the cost of the legislation, which includes measures seeking to prevent evictions and provide additional housing supports through grants and other means.

Sen. Dale Kooyenga noted while the package would help "they will not solve the problem of homelessness." He also drew Democratic criticism on the floor for saying homelessness "is not only a money issue" but a relationship one, where individuals lack people they could call to take them in. 

"As we continue to have this debate on homelessness, I ask that we talk about the root of the problem and not just money," said Brookfield Republican, who also identified barriers to employment and others as contributing issues. 

Calling the bills "the heaviest lift of the biennium," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters after the vote he wouldn't rule out the chamber taking up more of the package in February when senators are in next. Still, he noted the remaining legislation has stalled in committee. 

The bill that passed this week would allocate $500,000 each year to fund grants for homeless shelters in Wisconsin. The funding for the effort -- and the other legislation in the package -- was already appropriated in the state budget.  

Other legislation that cleared the chamber seeks to limit the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, a group of chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems and a host of other health issues. Specifically, the language, which passed via voice vote, would put caps on where firefighters could test those foams and only allow for its use in emergency fire response situations, in some cases.

Sen. Mark Miller called on the Legislature to do more and slammed the bill for dealing "very narrowly" with firefighting foam rather than broader PFAS issues around Wisconsin, such as the state's new PFAS warning for fish in Lake Monona and Starkweather Creek

"It does not change anything," Miller, D-Monona, said of the bill. "It does not, Mr. President, deal with the existing contamination."

Sen. Rob Cowles, who authored the legislation, said the effort means "other contamination places around the state could be prevented." 

"This bill in front of us was never meant to be the only bill," the Green Bay Republican said. 

The same bill also passed the state Assembly Tuesday afternoon. It now awaits Evers' signature. 

A few other bills from different task forces also made it to the Senate floor this week. That includes one from the Adoption Task Force that's now on its way to Evers to expand eligibility for adoption assistance from the Department of Children and Families.

Currently, DCF can give payments to adoptive parents who take in a child who's at least 10 and has two other siblings that are being placed together. The bill would lower the age to 7 and extend assistance for two or more siblings that must be placed in the same home.

Separately, two suicide prevention bills that previously won Assembly support also were green-lighted: legislation to distribute $250,000 per year to fund peer-to-peer suicide prevention programs in high schools (each high school would be eligible for up to $1,000) and another to mandate that all student ID cards include the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or another similar resource. 

Those bills now head to Evers for his signature. It's unclear when the remaining bills in the package, recommended by the Suicide Prevention Task Force, will see a scheduled floor vote. Fitzgerald noted many of those bills also haven't gotten through the committee process yet. 

"I don't drive what the chairs do," the Juneau Republican said. 

Going forward this session, Fitzgerald said the Senate is expected to convene once next month, on Feb. 19, and once in March. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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