By Collin Roth and CJ Szafir

The spring legislative session will not be long, likely concluding in March. As often during this time, hundreds of bills will be circulating the legislature. It can get confusing for the average Wisconsinite.   

Governor Scott Walker’s State of the State address listed several major priorities: welfare reform, a child tax credit, foster care reform, and more money for public schools lead the way. These will likely pass in some manner.    

But there are also a number of bills which will expand freedom, opportunity, and liberty in the state. Here are eight of the bills conservatives need to be following:

More freedom to work – Lawmakers in Madison have begun chipping away at the red tape of occupational licensing laws, i.e. a government permission to work in certain regulated professions. For example, an aspiring cosmetologist has to complete 1,550 hours of training before one can legally work.

These laws create artificial barriers to entry for many individuals who just want to work. Wisconsin continues to license more than 240 different occupational categories. Wisconsin currently ranks as the 5th most burdensome state for licensing in a WILL study. Not surprisingly, burdensome licensing red tape results in fewer jobs.

We need structural change in order to give more people, especially low-income, blue-collared, and middle-class workers, the opportunity to enter the workforce. SB 288 / AB 369 establishes a review commission to evaluate all of Wisconsin’s occupational licenses, giving us the best chance to lay the groundwork for future reforms. Additionally, SB 296 / AB 370 would create an alternative pathway for aspiring professionals by creating a voluntary state certification.  

These common-sense bills have yet to see a floor vote in the Assembly or the Senate.

Protecting property rights with civil forfeiture reform – The practice of civil forfeiture could be an invitation to abuse by law enforcement. Under Wisconsin law, law enforcement agencies can seize and retain property alleged to be in the commission of a crime without a criminal conviction. SB 61 sponsored by state Senator Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) would reform Wisconsin’s civil forfeiture laws to require a criminal conviction before assets can be seized and retained. This is a valuable bulwark to defend civil liberties and property rights.

Giving terminal patients the “Right to Try” – A national movement is underway to remove government barriers for terminally ill patients who want to use experimental drugs or treatments. Led by the Goldwater Institute, more than 38 states have passed Right to Try laws to offer hope to the terminally ill. Sen. Ron Johnson sponsored federal Right to Try legislation that passed in the US Senate last year but has yet to move in the House of Representatives.  At last night’s State of the Union speech, President Donald Trump endorsed the policy.  

In Wisconsin, our Right to Try effort appears stuck. After the bill received strong bipartisan support in the Assembly, passing 85-13, the ball is in the Senate’s court. SB 84 will be voted on in the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services on Tuesday.*

Gifted and Talented Education Savings Accounts (ESA) – Expanding education opportunity has been a two-decade project in Wisconsin with Milwaukee being home to the very first school voucher program.  But other states have moved past voucher programs by establishing Education Savings Accounts (ESA), which give families access to a taxpayer-funded account of education dollars to spend how they see fit.  AB 830 / SB 725 would create the first ESA in Wisconsin by making it available for low-income families of gifted and talented students.

A WILL study found that services for gifted and talented students are unequally distributed in school districts across Wisconsin, leaving many gifted and talented students from low-income households without access to valuable resources. This ESA would solve an acute problem, expanding opportunity and resources to low-income students in all schools – traditional public, public charter, and private voucher schools.

Rolling back the administrative state – The regulatory state – marked by unelected bureaucrats pushing burdensome regulations – is out of control in Wisconsin.  According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Wisconsin is home to some of the most burdensome regulations in the country.  Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) found that the administrative code has 12 times more words than the entire Harry Potter series.  

While the legislature made some progress on regulatory reform last summer with the enactment of the REINS Act, there is much more to be done.  Senate Bill 295 requires all regulations to automatically expire after seven years, forcing the state to determine whether they should be reauthorized. SB 745 / AB 880 would prevent courts from giving deference to agency legal interpretations in cases.  In doing so, this would massively rein in the power of bureaucrats (the bill relates to a pending state Supreme Court case, Tetra Tech v. DOR).  

Reducing burdens on businesses that hire apprentices – The need for more apprentices has become a national theme. Both President Trump and Governor Walker frequently tout the importance of getting inexperienced workers the skills they need. Unfortunately, Wisconsin law makes it very difficult for businesses to hire additional apprentices.

Apprenticeship ratio laws enforced by the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) restrict how many apprentices per journeymen (i.e. skilled employees) a business can hire. Research has found that a high apprentice-to-journeyman ratio can stunt the growth of apprenticeship programs.  

To address the workforce needs of Wisconsin industry, Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) and Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) introduced SB 411 / AB 508 to ease the legal burdens on businesses that hire apprentices at a 1:1 ratio. The bill has garnered national attention with Americans for Tax Reform weighing in favorably. The bills have passed the Senate and Assembly committees and are awaiting floor votes.

Returning power back to Wisconsin from Washington D.C. – The federal government annually gives hundreds of billions of dollars to the states. But this does not come without its costs. Funding from the federal government has burdensome strings attached, pushing states to enact certain policies and take certain action. It amounts to a creeping federal takeover of the states.  

A bill introduced this week could potentially unshackle Wisconsin from directives of the feds. AB 879 will require the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau and Legislative Council to submit a report for each budget, identifying the “coercive conditions attached to federal funds available to the state.” The bill then authorizes the Wisconsin Attorney General to sue the federal government on behalf of the state if such a condition warrants it.        

Scaling back the minimum markup law:   As featured in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal authored by WILL and Americans for Tax Reform, the state of Wisconsin makes it illegal for businesses to sell goods at prices below cost. The Unfair Sales Act, better known as the minimum markup, forces a 9.18 percent price markup on gasoline, groceries, tobacco, and alcohol. Proponents of the law say it helps the “little guy,” protecting mom and pop stores from Wal-Mart and Meijer.  This claim was debunked by a WILL study, showing that a state’s minimum markup law has no relationship to the number of small businesses.  

While there is currently no bill to fully repeal the anti-consumer law, SB 263 / AB 359 would repeal the minimum markup for the sale of prescription drugs. Unfortunately, even the partial repeal bill has yet to receive a committee hearing.

With 2018 being an election year, politics is going to have an outsized role in the legislative agenda. But these proposals aren’t just good policy, but good politics too. Lawmakers should be giddy at the prospect of telling constituents they freed more people to work, gave hope to the terminally ill, and protected the property rights of millions. They would be proud of their efforts to put more money back in the pockets of the people through helping to lower the price of prescription drugs.  And they took power away from unelected bureaucrats and Washington D.C., returning it to the people of Wisconsin.  

These bills deserve serious consideration – and votes – prior to the session ending.  There’s no excuse for a Republican majority legislature to not pass them.  

*Correction: This article originally said Right to Try did not have a public hearing in the Senate. That is incorrect. It had a public hearing in August and a vote in committee is scheduled for Tuesday.

Collin Roth is a research fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
CJ Szafir is Executive Vice President for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty..