The Republican-controlled Legislature on Wednesday approved a handful of criminal justice bills, including one that would clarify the definition of “violent crime” in preparation for the anticipated passage of a state constitutional amendment that would allow judges to consider defendants’ past convictions in setting cash bail.
The Assembly also approved two bills, one of which the Senate also passed, that would increase penalties for reckless driving, measures Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signaled he would sign.
Besides taking up a couple of the same crime-related bills, the GOP-led Senate on Wednesday approved a measure that would continue to allow licensed counselors and others who attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through the discredited practice known as “conversion therapy” to operate in Wisconsin.
Additionally, the Senate voted unanimously to confirm three members of Evers’ cabinet. Often a formality in the past, the Senate has stalled on Evers’ confirmations since he became governor, leaving many of his picks unconfirmed.
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The Assembly and Senate approved, mostly along party lines, SB 75, a bill that clarifies the definition of a violent crime. Republicans’ stated purpose is to give judges a clear picture of what constitutes a violent crime as they factor in defendants’ past convictions to decide defendants’ bail amounts — something they would be able to do if a proposed constitutional amendment passes on April 4.
The Assembly approved the bill, 67-30, with five Democrats in favor. The Senate approved the measure 20-11, with Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, in favor.
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Unlike the proposed constitutional amendment, the bill to define violent crimes would need Evers’ support. The proposed bill would clarify that judges can consider dozens of defendants’ past “violent crime” convictions, from reckless homicide to intimidating a witness by use of force, when they set cash bail.
Despite some bipartisan support, some Democrats said the proposed definition is too broad. Both Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates said at a Tuesday debate that they support the amendment, though neither commented on the accompanying bill.
“If (Evers) does veto it and the constitutional amendment passes, then it’s kind of a Wild West,” Rep. Cindi Duchow, R-Delafield, said about the measure, adding that without the bill judges would have different definitions of what constitutes “violent crime.”
Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback didn’t clarify where the governor stands on the proposal.
The Assembly also passed two measures, AB 55 and SB 92 that would increase penalties for reckless driving, which the bill proponents say are necessary given increasing rates of the offense and the low rate of compliance for paying reckless driving fines. Both bills passed 85-12. The first bill would increase several reckless driving-related penalties. The second bill, which the Senate passed 30-1 on Wednesday and now goes to Evers’ desk, would allow police to impound vehicles used in reckless driving offenses if the owner of that car was cited in a past offense without paying off a fine.
Evers signaled to a TMJ4 reporter Wednesday that he would sign both reckless driving measures.
The Assembly also passed AB 51, which would allow people living in the United States through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by the Obama administration in 2012 to become law enforcement officers. The bill, which was adopted on a voice vote Wednesday, passed the Assembly last year but did not receive a Senate vote. The Senate hasn’t yet voted or held a public hearing on the measure.
Michael Pyritz, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the proposal.
The Assembly approved a more divisive proposal, AB 58, that would increase penalties for people with felonies caught with guns. In Wisconsin, people with felonies can’t possess guns. Those caught doing so can face up to five years in prison followed by five years of extended supervision. But there is no mandatory minimum sentence for the crime. The proposed bill, which passed 62-35 along party lines, would create a five-year mandatory minimum. Supporters say the measure would increase public safety, but opponents say it would result in overly harsh sentences.
The public would be able to watch more parole deliberations in real time under another GOP proposal, AB 47, that the Assembly passed 77-20 on Wednesday. The bill was written after the Wisconsin Parole Commission came under scrutiny last year over whom it sought to release.
The Senate hasn’t voted for the measure, which would eliminate from the state’s open meetings law the exemption allowing the commission to go into closed session when it considers parole requests.
The Senate also approved a Republican-written measure, SB 101, that would increase the maximum prison time for people who produce or sell drugs that cause another person’s death. That bill passed 28-3.
The Senate approved a procedural move on Wednesday, SB 4, to prohibit any rule banning conversion therapy. Rather than vote on the bill itself, the Senate voted 20-11, with all Democrats opposed, to move the bill into committee. The Assembly voted along party lines to do the same last week.
The move mirrors how Republicans handled the Department of Safety and Professional Services rule two years ago and effectively blocks the rule for the remainder of the legislative session, which ends in 2024. Moving the measure back to a committee also keeps the bill from reaching the desk of Evers, who would almost certainly veto it.
“This issue deserves a public hearing, a debate and a vote,” Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, said before the Senate session. “The GOP can’t be allowed to use the rules process again to continue holding back progress for the next four years under the Evers administration.”
The vote follows a January move by the Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to strike a recently implemented rule that classified intervention by a licensed marriage and family therapist, counselor or social worker to try to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as unprofessional conduct.
The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, calls conversion therapy, also known as “reparative therapy,” “dangerous and discredited” and it has been rejected by mainstream medical and mental health organizations for decades. Both the American Psychological Association and American Medical Association have also denounced conversion therapy.
The Senate unanimously confirmed Evers’ choices for secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, commissioner of the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and secretary of the Department of Tourism.
The votes followed years of clashes between Evers and the state Senate over that chamber’s unwillingness to confirm some of the governor’s appointees. The agency leaders’ appointments are subject to approval by the Senate, although they can serve in the role if the chamber refuses to vote on their appointment.
Department of Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers, for example, was appointed in September 2021 but hadn’t been confirmed until Wednesday, along with WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes and Commissioner of Insurance Nathan Houdek.
The agency leaders’ confirmation comes as the relationship between Evers and LeMahieu appears to be thawing, with the leaders on speaking terms and each expressing willingness to compromise. At the same time, LeMahieu has called some of Evers’ past cabinet nominations “politically charged.”
Inside the battle over the upcoming 2-year Wisconsin budget
Over the next several months, the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will battle their way through the the 2023-25 biennial budget process as the state has a projected surplus of more than $7 billion.
Evers has called for a 10% tax cut for individuals earning $100,000 or less a year and married filers making $150,000 or less.
The governor's budget proposal is all but certain to receive pushback from legislative Republicans, who have championed the need to implement a flat income tax in Wisconsin.
Evers on Tuesday also unveiled proposals to cut taxes, increase local government funding, spend more than $100 million to deal with PFAS contamination and support child care providers.
Around a third of students across Wisconsin feel sad and hopeless almost every day, according to the Office of Children's Mental Health.
Wisconsin's latest fiscal outlook projects the state will wrap up the current fiscal year with about half a billion dollars more than previous projections.
The two top options being discussed are adjusting the state's income tax to benefit middle class earners or eliminating the current tax and creating a 3.25% flat tax.
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Evers will unveil his formal budget request on Feb. 15. From there, the Republican-controlled budget committee will rewrite the document before sending it back to the governor.
Of the more than 4.2 million licensed drivers in Wisconsin, 770,000 had at least one OWI citation or conviction as of the end of 2021.