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Senate to vote on homeless shelter funding, Assembly to take up opioid bills in Tuesday sessions
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LEGISLATURE | PFAS, ABORTION, OPIOIDS AND MORE

Senate to vote on homeless shelter funding, Assembly to take up opioid bills in Tuesday sessions

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The Assembly and Senate are slated to vote Tuesday on issues ranging from homeless shelter funding and restrictions on hazardous chemicals in firefighting foam to efforts to address Wisconsin’s opioid crisis.

Both houses of the state Legislature plan to take up a companion bill to restrict the use of firefighting foam containing certain highly fluorinated compounds known as PFAS. The measure would limit where firefighters and others could test or train with such foam.

The bill would allow use of the foam only in emergency fire response or in testing areas that the Department of Natural Resources determines have “appropriate containment, treatment, and disposal measures.”

The GOP-authored bill has been criticized by Democratic lawmakers, who argue the legislation does not go far enough.

PFAS chemicals — also found in food packaging, non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, carpeting and other products — have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and other ailments. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment.

State health officials last week warned against eating certain kinds of fish from Lake Monona after tests showed PFAS in fish from the lake and Starkweather Creek.

If the Assembly and Senate pass the bill, it would go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for final approval.

Anti-abortion resolution

The Assembly is scheduled to take up a controversial resolution declaring Jan. 22 as “Protect Life Day.” The date will be the 47th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, which guaranteed a person’s right to an abortion.

The text of the resolution criticizes the 1973 ruling and argues “the future of our state and country depends on protection of the weakest members of the human family.”

The debate over abortion roiled the state Capitol in 2019, with the Republicans in the Legislature passing a slate of contentious anti-abortion measures that Evers vetoed.

Opioid legislation

A number of bills seeking to combat Wisconsin’s opioid crisis are up for a vote in the Assembly Tuesday.

One of the bills, by Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, would allow county jails to have easier access and training to use naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. County jails would be able to enter agreements with ambulance service providers to get the drug.

Mirroring protections already in place for law enforcement officers and firefighters, the bill would grant immunity to county jailers from liability for administering naloxone, also known as Narcan.

Another bill would require the state to maintain a registry of approved recovery residences. It would also prohibit state employees from being penalized for using medication-assisted treatment to decrease cravings and withdrawal from opioid addiction.

Another measure would start Medicaid coverage of acupuncture, which would require federal approval. The bill would also add $1 million over two years to expand Medicaid coverage of physical therapy and chiropractic treatments. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the increase in the state budget this year. But Evers vetoed it, citing the Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Through the bills, lawmakers want to increase the availability of opioid alternatives to treat pain. Another measure would create a Medicaid benefit for peer recovery coach services. One would continue a law giving immunity from some controlled-substances crimes to people who seek help for others suffering overdoses and to the people receiving help if they complete a drug treatment program.

Homeless bill

The Senate also on Tuesday will vote on a bill that would allocate $500,000 per year over the next two years to a grant program that supports emergency homeless shelters. Funding would help add beds to existing shelters or create new shelters in areas of need.

The legislation, part of a GOP-led package of eight bills that has been available to the Senate since it passed the Assembly back in June, represents only a portion of the $3.7 million set aside in the state budget for homelessness initiatives.

The issue of homelessness has been in the headlines across the state over the last year due to an effort by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and journalists at the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications to draw attention to an estimated 20,000 adults and children living without permanent housing.

A special report, “Homelessness in Wisconsin: State at a Crossroads,” highlighted how Wisconsin spends far less than neighboring states on the issue. But bipartisan efforts to increase funding for various programs have stalled.

If passed, the bill heads to the governor for final approval.

UW agreements

The Senate also will vote on six bills pertaining to two years of collective bargaining agreements for the several hundred unionized trades employees across the University of Wisconsin System.

The 2018-19 agreement would entail a 2.13% increase, while the 2019-20 agreement amounts to a 2.44% raise. The raises would be retroactive. Dave Branson, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, which represents the UW trades employees, said trades employees who have retired since negotiations began would not be eligible.

Three collective bargaining units — UW-Madison, UW System and the state — represent about 425 total trades employees. Each unit voted to renew its status in November.

The Assembly approved the agreements last week and, if passed by the Senate, they will head to Evers.

Appointments

The Senate also on Tuesday will vote on two of Evers’ appointed cabinet heads — Joaquin Altoro, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, and Caleb Frostman, secretary of the Department of Workforce Development. The appointment of Darrell Williams as administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management also is on the agenda.

Republican lawmakers in the Senate have been in no rush to take up votes on several of Evers’ appointed cabinet heads, with some legislators raising concerns over a few of the secretaries who have not yet been approved by the full Senate.

While not receiving confirmation can create uncertainty for secretaries, Senate Republicans last year took matters a step further when they voted to fire Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff, something that has not happened since at least 1987, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Other bills

Other bills up for a vote in the Assembly include one that would provide $5.2 million in previously authorized bonding authority for water infrastructure updates in the state parks system. Another would create a school-based mental health consultation pilot program in Outagamie County to help school-based providers provide enhanced care to students.

Another bill would eliminate the six-month waiting period for a person to get married after a judgment of divorce.

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