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Republicans Push Voter Suppression and Lobbyist-Friendly Bills Ahead of Tough Fall Election

GOP split on ALEC-debated education bill

Mar. 12, 2014
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In the final days of the legislative session, the Republican-dominated state Senate is focusing its agenda on bills that don’t necessarily have the votes to pass. Bills that would suppress voter turnout, reduce transparency of special interest-sponsored campaign “issue ads” and roll back new educational standards were fast-tracked in committees even though Republican legislators—not to mention the Democratic minority—aren’t fully on board.


Suppressing the Vote Before an Election

All members of the Assembly and half of the state Senate members face the voters this fall, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his likely Democratic opponent, businesswoman Mary Burke, will be in a heated race for governor. So it isn’t surprising that Republican legislators are fast-tracking bills that would suppress voting and grant perks to special interests. Republican-pushed proposals would limit in-person absentee voting to weekdays and eliminate voting on Saturdays and Sundays and limit in-person absentee voting to 45 hours per week. The bills would discourage irregular voters and those who work during the business day from casting a ballot and prohibit the city of Milwaukee from expanding its in-person absentee voting hours, as it has in the past.

To counter the Republican attacks on voting rights, state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) is introducing a Right to Vote constitutional amendment that would protect the voting rights of “every qualified elector of the state.” The proposal would need to be passed by two consecutive legislative sessions and in a statewide referendum for it to be added to the state constitution.

Republicans are also pushing bills to expand the time in which a lobbyist can donate to a legislator, which would allow lobbyists to make campaign contributions while the Legislature is in session. Another fast-tracked bill would reaffirm special interest groups’ disclosure exemptions when airing phony “issue ads” before an election.

Despite the Republicans’ attention to these anti-democratic measures, their fate in the full Senate isn’t clear. One legislative aide told the Shepherd that they were being pushed by state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) despite more moderate Republicans’ opposition, and giving the Grothman bills a public hearing was a way to appease him.

The Senate hasn’t voted on these bills as the Shepherd goes to press.


ALEC’s Vukmir Introduces Divisive Bill

Republicans also spent precious time last week debating a bill that would weaken and potentially eliminate the Common Core, educational standards that were enacted in Wisconsin in 2010 and adopted by 44 other states and the District of Columbia. Its implementation received $12 million in the latest Republican-written state budget passed last summer.

Despite a 10-hour hearing, the Common Core bill appears to be dead. Senate Education Committee Chair Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) don’t support it and say that there are not enough votes to pass it.

That fracture in the GOP mirrors the anti-Common Core movement around the country. Some of its critics on the left decry it as being too corporate-friendly. The Common Core is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), for example, and has support among more mainstream Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But the main criticism is coming from tea party Republicans, who are not upset about the Common Core’s corporate sympathies but, rather, that it erodes state control over educational standards.

Last April, the Republican National Committee, chaired by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ally Reince Priebus, passed an anti-Common Core resolution. And the corporate bill-mill American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) debated an anti-Common Core resolution last year, developed by the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. That institute is a member of ALEC and the State Policy Network, the ALEC- and Koch brothers-connected web of conservative and libertarian “think tanks” that generate studies that push the right-wing agenda of ALEC. Ultimately, ALEC voted against the resolution, although it had previously voted to adopt a resolution opposing federal overreach in educational matters.

Wisconsin’s version of the anti-Common Core bill was advanced by state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), ALEC’s national treasurer, and state Sen. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee), also an ALEC member. The bill would allow a 15-member, politically appointed Model Academic Standards Board and the Legislature to revamp educational standards, undercutting the power of the state superintendent, a constitutional officer, and ignoring years of work on the current standards and exams.

During testimony last week, Deputy State Superintendent Mike Thompson and Assistant State Superintendent Sheila Briggs explained the damage that Vukmir and Farrow’s bill would do. Not only did Republicans provide $12 million to implement the Common Core, but in 2011 the Legislature and Walker explicitly required the Department of Public Instruction to develop exams aligned to Common Core standards. The bill would also jeopardize federal Title 1 funding, which would have an enormous impact on Milwaukee Public Schools. In addition, if the state repealed the Common Core, the exams based on it would need to be scrapped immediately.

Since the bill does not build in the necessary time to procure, develop and pilot a new assessment, the bill would result in no state test for years, Thompson and Briggs testified.

The committee didn’t vote on the bill last week, and given Olsen and Fitzgerald’s opposition, it appears to be dead. 


Cannabis Oil Bill in Limbo

Also in limbo is a bill that would legalize cannabidiol oil for seizures, which passed 7-1 in the Assembly Committee on Children and Families. The bill has strong bipartisan support in the Legislature, but will likely be blocked by Sen. Vukmir, a nurse, in the state Senate. Supporters will find out this week if Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) will send the bill to the Assembly floor. Vos is the state representative of Sally Schaeffer, the mother of Lydia, a six-year-old who is battling seizure disorders that could be helped by cannabidiol oil. (Sally and Lydia’s story was featured on the Feb. 6 cover of the Shepherd.) Schaeffer is urging supporters to contact their state legislator to schedule a vote on this bill.


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