Gov. Scott Walker quietly signed a set of contentious GOP bills barring abortion coverage through health insurance exchanges, requiring doctors to consult privately with women seeking abortions and mandating sex education teachers stress abstinence.
Walker, a Republican, signed the bills Thursday but didn't announce the move until midday Friday, when his office released a list of more than 50 bills he signed Thursday and Friday. Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said it was simpler to lump all the bills signed over the two days into one announcement.
Democrats have ripped the measures as an all-out attack on women. They heaped criticism on the governor Friday, calling the delay in announcing the signings cowardly and the bills bizarre social policy.
"Perhaps he thought that in doing this behind closed doors, with no public notice, before a holiday weekend for many families, his actions would go unnoticed. He was wrong. We will not be silent — these issues are too important to ignore," Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, said in a statement.
Werwie declined to comment.
Pro-Life Wisconsin issued a statement praising the governor for signing "common sense bills that protect children, women and taxpayers."
The first bill bans abortion coverage through policies obtained through a health insurance exchange, set to be created under the federal health care reform law starting in 2014. The only exceptions would be in cases of rape, incest or medical necessity.
The exchanges are meant to be a marketplace for small businesses and individuals to shop for health insurance coverage. States are required to either set up an exchange or face having one established for them by the federal government. Federal law allows states to prohibit abortions coverage through the exchange.
Democrats contend banning abortion coverage infringes on the free market. Republicans said they're simply taking advantage of the federal abortion exemptions.
The second bill requires a woman seeking an abortion to undergo a physical exam and consult with a doctor alone, away from her friends and family. The doctor must determine whether someone is pressuring the woman into the procedure. Doctors who break the law could be charged with a felony.
Republicans contend the bill will ensure women aren't coerced into abortions and prevent doctor-patient consultations via webcam.
But opponents argue webcam consultations aren't currently done in Wisconsin and Republicans simply want to make it more difficult to get an abortion. The Wisconsin Medical Society, meanwhile, contends the bill interferes with the doctor-patient relationship. The association, as well as several Democrats, asked Walker to veto the measure.
The sex education bill requires teachers in schools that offer sex education to stress abstinence as the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The bill also declares that sex education teachers do not have to address contraception. That's a dramatic shift from current state law, which requires teachers to instruct students on birth control options.
Democrats have argued that the bill is unrealistic and will lead to more teen pregnancies.
Walker also signed a bill that prohibits workers from collecting damages in employment discrimination cases.
Under current state law, employees who prevail in discrimination lawsuits can collect between $50,000 and $300,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The Republican bill blocks anyone from collecting such damages in employment discrimination suits.
The state Department of Workforce Development could still award an employee back pay, costs and attorney fees, however.
Democrats say the bill hurts women who might suffer discrimination in the workplace.
Limiting school voucher program
Walker also signed a bill that limits expansion of Wisconsin's school voucher program.
The voucher program subsidizes private education for students in struggling school districts. The program had been limited to the city of Milwaukee, but Republicans included new qualifiers in the state budget that extended the program throughout Milwaukee County and the city of Racine.
Opponents complained the new criteria was so broad students across the state could qualify. Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican who co-chairs the Legislature's budget committee, said that was never the intent and GOP lawmakers passed a bill that limits voucher participation to school districts in the program when the bill took effect. Any additional districts would need separate legislation to join.