Contentious budget debate casts shadow over remaining legislative session

Capitol observers are watching Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, right, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, left, for how they'll respond to Senate GOP legislation after a contentious budget battle.

A protracted and contentious state budget debate could cast a long shadow over what is expected to be a short fall and winter legislative session.

Before lawmakers adjourn for the 2018 campaign season early next year, there are plenty of hot-button issues left to address.

They include proposals from business and conservative groups to change the workers’ compensation system, loosen mining restrictions and wetland protections and scrap state family and medical leave protections that overlap with federal ones.

Lawmakers will grapple with other contentious bills targeting so-called sanctuary cities, restricting use of fetal tissue in research and allowing concealed firearms to be carried without permits and in school zones.

But Capitol observers say the tension between Assembly and Senate Republicans left over from the budget debate could grind the legislative session to a standstill. The nearly three-month delay in completing the budget also creates a compressed timeline for getting bills to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker.

“What went on during the budget will have an impact on any piece of major legislation moving forward in this short legislative period,” said Brandon Scholz, president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association and a longtime Capitol lobbyist.

“It would not be surprising if the Legislature grinds to a halt because of bad blood over final budget negotiations,” Republican strategist Brian Fraley said.

Complicating the picture: Many of the remaining high-profile bills are sponsored by hard-line conservative GOP senators who tangled with Assembly Republican leaders during budget talks.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was left fuming after three conservative GOP senators — Chris Kapenga, Stephen Nass and Duey Stroebel — struck a budget deal with Walker that cut out provisions important to Vos. A fourth, GOP Sen. David Craig, opposed the budget altogether.

Vos, who was traveling last week and unavailable for comment, told Walker in a text message the day after the budget passed the Senate that he was disappointed with the way he was treated.

“I won’t forget this,” he wrote.

Vos could retaliate by blocking bills authored by the three senators who struck a deal with Walker, say lobbyists and advocates who follow Capitol politics.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said regulatory reform will be a priority for Assembly Republicans. He added “I don’t anticipate any issues” from the heated budget talks.

“For me, politics isn’t personal,” Steineke said.

Gov. Scott Walker, who is expected to launch his 2018 re-election campaign next month, will advocate for measures that reduce unemployment fraud, subject business regulations to review every seven years and limit lawsuits against businesses, as well as delivering more resources to rural schools and expanding statewide broadband access, spokesman Tom Evenson said.

Democrats push back

Democrats, stuck in the minority for seven years, see an opportunity to capitalize on an unpopular Republican president, unpopular health care bills pushed by the GOP-controlled Congress, and the Legislature’s inability to solve the state’s transportation-funding woes.

Democrats are advocating for bills that would help student loan borrowers refinance, divert more offenders from prison, decriminalize marijuana possession, legalize medicinal marijuana and register voters when they renew their license plates, said newly elected Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

Republicans are unlikely to go along with those measures. But Hintz said there are also proposals that could draw bipartisan agreement, such as allowing higher property taxes on vacant big box stores, connecting workers in Milwaukee with suburban employers and any measures to address Russian attempts to hack the state’s election system.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Democrats are most concerned about the mining bill, the fetal tissue bill — which would ban research on new stem cells taken from fetuses — and a bill that could eventually scale back licensing requirements for various occupations.

Workers’ compensation

The state’s largest business group and health care industry are gearing up for battle over proposed changes to the workers’ compensation system. The biggest change would be introducing a fee schedule that would cap payments for medical treatment.

The Legislature typically passes a bill every two years with changes to the system recommended by the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council, which includes representatives from labor, business and health insurance industry. Four years ago the council forwarded a proposal including a fee schedule, but the Legislature failed to pass a bill for the first time in decades.

Once again Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is pressing for the change, which the council agreed to include in its model bill. WMC lobbyist Scott Manley emphasized that the model bill requires a unanimous vote from both labor and management.

“This is something where we want to show the Legislature that they can get past gridlock,” Manley said.

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WMC recently announced a coalition of 46 groups pushing for the worker’s compensation bill to pass this time. In a letter to lawmakers they noted the number of worker’s compensation claims in the state dropped 58 percent between 1994 and 2014, but companies didn’t experience any savings because medical costs rose 450 percent.

Mark Grapentine, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Medical Society, countered that Wisconsin’s system remains a model for the country, with injured workers returning to work faster than any other state and total costs slightly below average. This year there was also an 8.46 percent drop in worker’s comp rates, saving companies $170 million.

“WMC has dramatically turned up the rhetoric, which is often a sign of the old saying, ‘If you don’t have the facts on your side, pound the table and yell,’” Grapentine said.

Environmental changes

Bills pitting businesses against environmental groups are also advancing through the Legislature.

A Senate committee last week approved a bill to lift Wisconsin’s requirement that mining companies show they have operated without polluting elsewhere before being permitted to extract sulfide metals, such as copper or gold, in Wisconsin.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, has sponsored the bill to scrap the requirement, calling it an impediment to creating much-needed mining jobs in economically stagnant northern Wisconsin.

Steineke is one of the authors of another bill that would eliminate state protections for wetlands, leaving such oversight to the federal government. WMC is pushing for that change after the state approved the measure for Foxconn’s $10 billion LCD-screen factory in Racine County.

“If aligning our wetland regulatory framework is good for Foxconn, why shouldn’t that be the paradigm for the rest of the state?” Manley said.

Family and medical leave

WMC also is pushing a bill that would eliminate state family and medical leave requirements for employers governed by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

The 1993 federal law requires employers to provide unpaid leave for employees for certain medical reasons, such as the birth of a child. Wisconsin enacted its own law five years earlier. Companies have complained that complying with two similar laws is onerous.

The bill would keep in place certain protections that the federal law doesn’t cover, such as the ability to take a leave of absence to care for a domestic partner.

Democrats want to expand the state’s Family and Medical Leave Act to allow workers to take a leave of absence to care for grandparents, siblings and children when a spouse is deployed overseas.

“Time and time again we have put the thumb on big corporations and big businesses in this state, and working families want to catch a break and be treated fairly,” Shilling said.


concealed carry

Another contentious proposal expected to come before lawmakers this fall would scrap the requirement for a state permit to carry a concealed firearm and eliminate the state’s gun-free school zone law.

Craig, R-Town of Vernon, is sponsoring the “right to carry” measure. It passed a Senate committee last month but has yet to see a vote in the full Senate or Assembly.

Walker has balked at the measure, saying the existing permit requirement system works well.

Democratic lawmakers also have assailed the proposal. In the wake of the recent Las Vegas shooting, Democrats proposed a measure banning the sale of gun attachments used by the shooter, known as bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to effectively function as automatic weapons. Similar legislation is being considered at the federal level.

Sanctuary cities

Nass is sponsoring a bill targeting so-called sanctuary cities and counties in Wisconsin that limit cooperation with federal officials to enforce immigration laws.

The bill likely will receive a hearing in the Senate Labor Committee soon, Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen said.

But Steineke said of the bill: “When I look at a list of priorities, I don’t think it’s near the top.”

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