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State Senate

The state Senate met for the last time before winter without taking up a package of bills that would commit more state resources to addressing homelessness.

Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to limit the governor’s partial veto authority, while also declining Democratic lawmakers’ request to increase funding to help the homeless.

While much of Tuesday’s Senate discussion focused on Republicans’ vote to fire Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ agriculture secretary, the Senate also approved a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the governor from using partial veto authority to increase state spending.

The constitutional amendment, which passed the Senate 19-14, along party lines, still needs to pass the Assembly, then pass both the Senate and Assembly again in a new session, and finally be ratified by voters in a general election before it would take effect. The governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment.

The amendment was introduced in July in the wake of the signing of the state budget, when Evers used his veto power in one case to increase school funding by about $65 million more than the Republican-controlled Legislature intended.

He did that by taking a $630 per-pupil amount the Legislature had deleted from existing law, restoring the “$63” and adding that new number to a different per-pupil amount the Legislature had created.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. “The voters supported a governor who supported education, and that’s what he is here to do.”

Republicans have argued the amendment helps the Legislature maintain its “power of the purse,” or ability to have the final say on state financial decisions.

Homeless funding

Senate Republicans on Tuesday also voted against taking up a discussion or vote on a bill that would provide extra funding to homeless shelters.

While the bill was not on the agenda, the Senate may vote on any bill with the consent of two-thirds of the members.

On Tuesday, Shilling requested the Senate suspend the rules to take up a vote on the bill, which would provide $500,000 annually to supplement the operating budgets of homeless shelters. She argued the bill would provide much needed support to homeless individuals as winter approaches.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined to comment earlier this week on the Senate’s inaction on the bill. On Tuesday, he encouraged Republicans to vote against suspending the rules to take up a vote on the bill, which they ultimately did.

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“As Wisconsin communities brace for the winter months, Republicans are literally leaving people out in the cold,” Shilling tweeted after the vote.

The bill is one of eight that passed the Assembly this summer that would increase state spending by about $4 million per year to assist the homeless.

The bills, which have Republican co-sponsors, would provide short-term grants or loans to defray housing costs; help struggling people find housing; create more beds in emergency shelters; pay for skills training to escape homelessness; assist landlords with repairs to low-cost housing; and expand grants for housing and related services.

After the vote, Fitzgerald said the Senate might take up discussion of some of the homelessness bills this spring, but he said he was not certain there was majority support for the entire package of bills.

“I don’t know if we can get support to pass all of them,” he said.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said he had talked at length with senators about the importance of taking up the legislation this fall so funding could get to shelters before winter.

“It’s unfortunate that they didn’t take it up in November,” Steineke said. “I’m still hopeful that they’ll take it up after the first of the year and we can get it over the finish line.”

Drunken driving bills pass

The Senate also signed off on two bills that would stiffen drunken driving penalties — and potentially generate millions of dollars in new prison costs.

The first bill would establish a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. State prison officials estimate the change would cost $525,100 in prison operating costs annually.

The Senate passed the measure on a voice vote Tuesday. The Assembly passed it in June. It goes next to Evers.

The other bill would increase the minimum time in prison for a fifth or sixth offense from six months to 18 months. Prison officials estimate the change would generate $13.6 million in additional operating costs annually.

The Senate passed the proposal on a voice vote Tuesday. It goes next to the Assembly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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