In what state Assembly leaders called their last legislative push of 2018, they voted Thursday to send $100 million to schools for security upgrades, give tax cuts to families and shutter and replace the state’s troubled youth prison.
Having passed the state Senate, those bills now head to a supportive Gov. Scott Walker.
The Assembly also voted, in a surprise move, to strengthen background checks for sales of long guns such as rifles and shotguns. That measure faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.
All the Assembly votes came in a so-called “extraordinary session” Thursday. The vote was 78-8 to pass the school safety bill, which would establish a new Office of School Safety at the state Department of Justice and give it $100 million to provide one-time grants to school districts for security measures.
The vote was unanimous, 90-0, to pass the bill to close and replace the state’s only youth prison, Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, in Irma.
The tax cut bill passed on a 59-31 vote. It creates a back-to-school sales-tax holiday in August and gives families a $100-per-child sales tax rebate later this year.
The background check measure, passed on a voice vote, came amid a national debate about gun laws that followed a recent Florida school shooting and a subsequent wave of student activism, much of it advocating gun-control measures.
The proposal that passed the Assembly Thursday would subject long gun sales to a type of state-level check that already applies to handgun sales. The state check includes more data on criteria that already legally bars someone from buying a gun, such as information from the state Circuit Court Access Program, or CCAP.
“All we’re saying is that information is good enough for handguns, it’s good enough for long guns, and we should be applying the same databases and checks to all these purchases,” said Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the plan is meant as a stopgap until federal efforts, already underway, improve the thoroughness of background checks conducted by the FBI’s national system.
The proposal would not expand checks to any types of gun sales not currently subject to them, such as private sales. Federal law requires federally licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on prospective buyers.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, on Thursday wouldn’t rule out the Senate returning to take up the background check bill or other bills the Assembly passed. But he declined to comment on whether the Senate will return this session until reviewing the bills passed by the Assembly, which he said won’t happen before Friday morning.
Assembly Democrats slammed the background check proposal as woefully inadequate. Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said it falls far short of making background checks universal, as Democrats want.
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“It just shows you what cowards these guys are in that this is the best they can do,” said Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
Other Democrats expressed skepticism that the state Senate would take up the measure.
Walker’s office declined to address how he views the proposal.
The school safety bill contains other measures including requiring public and private schools to conduct annual drills on responding to a school violence event.
It also requires reporting of school violence threats by teachers, school administrators, counselors, other school employees, physicians, and other medical and mental health professionals. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Council, the requirement stipulates they must “immediately inform a law enforcement agency of the facts and circumstances contributing to the belief that there is a serious and imminent threat.”
Walker triggered the discussion over school safety earlier this year by offering a plan that mirrors part of what came up in the Assembly Thursday, including the security grants to schools.
Thursday’s developments were the latest in an end-of-session flurry of action, punctuated by differences between Assembly and Senate leaders on key issues. The state Assembly initially vowed to pass Walker’s proposal in a special session, as he sought. But the extraordinary session was convened when the state Senate approved the school safety, tax and youth prison bills in regular session Tuesday.
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have been plagued with allegations of inmate abuse and staff assaults for years, and have been under federal investigation since 2015.
The youth prison bill passed Thursday is a modified version of one that passed the Assembly last month. Senate changes to the bill retain the approach of replacing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake with new, smaller regional facilities for youth corrections.
But before becoming a done deal, the bill calls for the replacement plan to be approved by the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
The tax relief bill creates a one-time sales-tax holiday on Aug. 4-5 for items such as electronics, clothing and school supplies. It also would give families $100 for every child living at home under 18 through a check in the mail this year.
Other measures the Assembly passed Thursday, which also will head to Walker, include a bill barring counties and municipalities from enacting certain employment requirements such as overtime and employment benefits, and a tort reform measure aimed at reducing litigation costs.
“All we’re saying is that information is good enough for handguns, it’s good enough for long guns, and we should be applying the same databases and checks to all these purchases.” Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron