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Senate votes to restrict use of PFAS in firefighting foam
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Senate votes to restrict use of PFAS in firefighting foam

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Both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature met Tuesday to pass bills on a variety of topics, from drug addiction and homelessness to ballot selfies.

The Senate on Tuesday passed proposed regulations to restrict the use of firefighting foam containing a hazardous chemical known as PFAS, which state regulators have found in Lake Monona fish.

The Senate also passed a bill to expand funding for emergency homeless shelters, one of eight homeless bills that the Assembly has already passed. Senate Republicans rejected an attempt by Democrats to pass the other seven. And it approved two more of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet appointments.

In the Assembly, Republicans who control the chamber cooled to recent Democratic proposals to regulate vaping. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he hasn’t seen the bills, but criticized Evers and Democratic lawmakers for not taking a more bipartisan approach to the legislation.

Evers and Democrats want to ban vaping on K-12 school campuses, expand the definition of public health emergencies, fund a public health campaign to address youth vaping in Wisconsin, and expand enforcement to prevent vaping sales to youth. They also want to create licensing requirements for municipalities to enforce vaping retailer business practices.

The GOP-authored PFAS bill passed the Senate on a voice vote Tuesday. Several Democratic lawmakers argued the legislation does not go far enough.

The measure would limit where firefighters and others could test or train with foam containing PFAS. The bill would allow use of the foam only in emergency fire responses or in approved testing areas.

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.

The Assembly passed the legislation on a voice vote Tuesday. The bill now goes to Evers for final approval.

Separately, Democrats have introduced legislation known as the CLEAR Act that would require the Department of Natural Resources to establish enforcement standards for PFAS in air, water and soil and to hold polluters responsible for cleanup.

Assembly Republicans Tuesday said they want to take a more cautious approach. They argued the CLEAR Act goes too far because it may regulate PFAS chemicals that scientists haven’t yet determined cause adverse human health effects.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said he wants to follow the science on the issue. He added he’s working with Democratic lawmakers on a measure that would help ensure legislative oversight over temporary emergency rules for PFAS chemicals the DNR could issue to protect property owners from contamination.

Homeless funding

The Senate bill to address homelessness 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 a portion of the $3.7 million set aside in the state budget for homelessness initiatives.

Democratic lawmakers proposed an amendment Tuesday that would have attached the remaining seven bills to provide short-term grants or loans to defray housing costs, help struggling people find housing, create more beds at emergency shelters, pay for skills training to escape homelessness and assist landlords with repairs to low-cost housing.

Despite GOP and Democratic lawmakers agreeing that more needs to be done to address homelessness, the amendment was rejected by Senate Republicans.

Ballot selfies

The Senate also approved on a voice vote a bill that would allow Wisconsin voters to take selfies with their marked election ballots.

The bill aims to bring state laws up to date with current trends among many voters, who often take and post photos of themselves with their ballot on social media.

Critics of the legislation have raised concern that the bill undoes the secret nature of the ballot. State elections officials have said the law against taking a photo of a ballot is meant to prevent people from selling their vote, with the photo serving as proof.

Wisconsin is one of 18 states that ban the showing of a completed ballot in a photo, though such rules are rarely enforced.

The bill also needs to pass the Assembly before heading to Evers.

UW agreements

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

The 2018-19 agreement would entail a 2.13% increase, while the 2019-20 agreement amounts to a 2.44% raise. The raises will be retroactive, but trades employees who have retired since negotiations began will 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 union status in November.

The agreements head to Evers for final approval.

Appointments

The Senate on Tuesday approved 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.

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 action

Assembly lawmakers approved a slate of bills addressing Wisconsin’s opioid epidemic. The bills would expand access to naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose, in county jails. Another measure would protect state employees from being disciplined for enrolling in medication-based treatments for opioid addiction. Another would start Medicaid coverage of acupuncture. The bills now go to the Senate.

Lawmakers also voted along party lines to approve a Republican resolution declaring Jan. 22 “Protect Life Day.” Jan. 22 marks 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.”

Democrats voted against the measure.

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