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MUSCODA — Gov. Scott Walker said Monday the state Senate should take up a bill next week to overhaul the state’s juvenile corrections system in spite of serious doubts cast by the Senate leader about the bill’s future.

Walker also said that given the bill’s widespread support, the Senate should have “substantive” and “not just political” reasons for not taking up the bipartisan bill passed unanimously last month in the state Assembly.

The governor said if Senate Republicans have legitimate changes, a case could be made to Assembly leadership to ask them to return to approve the amended legislation.

“If any in the Senate want to make a change and it’s substantive — it adds substantive value — I think we can make the case,” Walker said. “But right now, with all the people involved — counties, sheriffs, law enforcement, the judiciary, Democrats and Republicans alike have overwhelmingly shown support — my hope is next week (the Senate) will bring it up.”

Walker made his comments to reporters Monday at Riverdale High School in Muscoda after signing a bill that increases funding for cash-strapped schools, mostly in rural areas.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state Assembly pushed the bill that closes the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma by 2021 and replaces the youth prison with a system of smaller facilities around the state — some run by counties and one or two run by the state Department of Corrections.

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last week the bill is “not ready for prime time,” and said the legislation hasn’t been vetted properly by the Legislature’s finance committee and didn’t include the “right people in the room” when it was drafted. He said he doesn’t believe the Assembly’s bill will pass without changes by the end of the Senate’s legislative session on March 20.

Fitzgerald also raised the possibility of the Senate voting on separate legislation to simply close the youth prison, which has been under investigation for three years over allegations of inmate abuse and has seen several serious staff assaults in recent years. He said he believes the Assembly’s vote was an endorsement of closing the youth prison, but not necessarily of the plan.

But with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, promising the Assembly is done for the year, the prospect of any legislation passing this session to address Lincoln Hills’ issues and changing the way the state handles juvenile offenders is uncertain because the Assembly must vote to approve any new legislation or changes to the current bill before Walker can sign it into law.

Walker on Monday pushed back against Fitzgerald’s characterization of the status of the legislation.

“I’d love to have a vote right now — I think it’s ready for prime time. I think it’s ready for a vote,” he said.

He said it’s possible both houses could agree to return after March 20 to take up a legislative package he’s working on to enhance school safety, in response to a recent shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school. At that time, Assembly lawmakers could take up changes the Senate wants to the juvenile corrections bill, Walker said.

“If we can get agreement so that we can get the Assembly and the Senate to each take up school safety, then it’s possible they might take up an issue or two, but these got to be substantive issues — these can’t just be politics,” Walker said.

A spokesman for Fitzgerald and a spokeswoman for Vos did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.