MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – It’s been a big week for liberty and limited government in the Legislature.
Several conservative-led reform measures moved forward, including legislation that will shine light on bureaucracy and hold bureaucrats accountable.
“Our caucus has always stood behind the idea of more individual freedom in almost every single circumstance. I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said Wednesday before floor session.
Honest Budgeting Prevails
One of the first bills out of the regular-session gate Tuesday was the base budgeting review bill authored by Sen. David Craig (Town of Vernon) and Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield). The Republican-controlled Senate passed the accountability measure, sending it onto the governor’s desk.
The bill requires state government agencies, the courts and the Legislature to periodically review – and justify – their budgets.
Legislators in the current budget process primarily debate adjustments to spending increases for each agency but never discuss the justification for the original base budget. The bill requires agencies periodically reexamine whether programs and expenditures are “meeting the mission statement of the agency.”
“This law will restore an important tool to make government do what families and businesses do every day – examine every dollar, see what is working, and evaluate priorities,” Craig said in a statement following passage. “Wisconsin families and businesses have to put all their bills and receipts on the table when making their budgets and so should government.”
Also Tuesday, the Senate on a party-line vote passed nine welfare reform bills aimed at “prioritizing work as the solution to poverty.”
“Today we moved one step closer to making meaningful and effective changes that will transform the lives of those stuck in the generational cycle of poverty,” said Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), who helped lead the legislative effort after Gov. Scott Walker last month called a special session to take up welfare reform.
“This package of bills puts Wisconsin on the forefront of states who realize the best solution to fighting poverty is through the power of work. Ninety-seven percent of people who work full time are not in poverty, proving that a work-first approach is the best solution to help set people on the path to self-sufficiency,” Kapenga said.
The package, now awaiting the governor’s signature, includes a bill requiring able-bodied parents to get a job or enroll in training programs in order to receive benefits. They join able-bodied adults without children now required to work at least 20 hours per week in order to collect welfare.
Another bill sets asset limits on Food Share and W-2 benefits. Those who own homes worth more than $321,200, for instance, are no longer eligible for the taxpayer-funded government assistance.
Another measure requires drug testing for public housing assistance, with funding for alcohol and drug addiction treatment.
Walker thanked the Republican-controlled Legislature for passing the reform package.
“These reforms will help people move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity that comes from work,” he said.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform
Another Craig bill, this one reining in law enforcement power to seize assets from individuals not charged or convicted of a crime, landed two huge victories this week.
After an Assembly hearing with no opposition Tuesday, the Senate passed the legislation 22-10, with four Democrats voting for the measure.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the bill, co-authored by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis), had been scheduled for Thursday’s final floor session in the Assembly.
As Craig said at the hearing Tuesday, the bill is a “long time coming.”
The legislation, which would demand a conviction before police could keep or sell seized property, is considered by some criminal justice watchers to be the strongest reform to a controversial law that has raised serious constitutional concerns.
Amended in a deal with the law enforcement community, the reform measure would require police to track forfeitures in a public database and it requires law enforcement to pay legal expenses in the most egregious cases of civil asset forfeiture abuse.
As conservative activist Larry Gamble pointed out at Tuesday’s public hearing, the reform measure does not call for the elimination of criminal asset forfeiture “because that is an extremely powerful and necessary tool in the fight against organized crime and in our drug epidemic.”
But Tim Dake, who testified on behalf of the conservative Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, said when police abuse the Fourth and Fifth amendments in seizing innocent citizens’ possessions, they have crossed the line into organized crime. The system, as it exists, places the burden on property owners to “prove their innocence,” as opposed to the state proving their guilt.
Derisively referred to as “policing for profit,” law enforcement may in certain instances keep up to 50 percent of the proceeds from the assets they seize, even from those who are never arrested for or convicted of a crime.
“A person who loses their money or their property due to a (conviction-less) civil asset forfeiture is no less a victim of crime than someone who is mugged or suffers a home invasion,” Dake said. “Directing police officers to seize property or money to augment a department’s budget is no less an act of organized crime than operating a car chop shop or a protection racket.”
A bill that would stiffen penalties for Unemployment Insurance fraud passed the Senate Tuesday and is now awaiting the governor’s signature.
The measure, authored by Kapenga and Rep. Samantha Kerkman, would make intentionally defrauding unemployment insurance a criminal penalty.
“Together we are creating a strong deterrent to benefit fraud and protecting the Unemployment Insurance fund so that the program can remain a safety net for those who are out of work,” Kerkman (R-Salem Lakes) said in a statement following Senate passage.
According to a 2014 report from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, from Fiscal Year 2011-12 to 2013-14 alone, there were nearly 65,000 cases of intentional fraud, amounting to $86.3 million in stolen money.
Kerkman said the legislation targets the worst offenders in UI benefits fraud by increasing the penalty based on the amount of the fraud, the same way it works for other types of theft.
Ending The ‘Patchwork’
Reform legislation bringing statewide uniformity to employment law just made the cut.
Assembly Bill 748 was moved to the Assembly floor after some compromise amendments.
Democrats, unions, community organizers and other opponents claim the bill is an assault on Wisconsin’s tradition of home rule.
Proponents say the measure would end the ‘patchwork” of employment laws that create confusion, kill competition and drive up business costs based on the whims of local government.
“We have seen a trend around this country in which local municipalities are pushing their own labor laws on how employers have to operate, setting minimum wage and living wage standards, and other things that are really contrary to how businesses need to operate,” said Hutton, co-author of the bill. “State law has to trump where local municipalities want to create hurdles for employees.”
If it moves through the Assembly, the reform bill will head to the Senate next month for the upper chamber’s closing floor session.
A bill that would extend closing hours at Wisconsin wineries gets a vote today in the Assembly.
Under current law, wineries are prohibited from staying open past 9 p.m., a protectionist restriction, critics assert, that stymies profit potential.
The Committee on State Affairs unanimously approved the bill (14-0) on Tuesday.
Dying on the Vine
An army of Walmart workers and fellow supporters at a hearing last week could not save a reform bill aimed at repealing large portions of a Depression Era, competition-killing law.
The latest minimum markup bill, again authored by Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) and Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon), faced the same fate it has session after session, dying at the doors of the Assembly and Senate chambers.
At least this time it got a public hearing.
Vukmir on Wednesday expressed her deep disappointment.
“Allowing businesses to function freely while allowing consumers to purchase goods at the best possible price is commonsense,” the senator said. “The Unfair Sales Act lacks rational basis and is an intrusion into the private sector. It is absurd that this long overdue repeal appears to have hit a dead end once again.”
Senate Bill 263 would have eliminated the prohibition on retailers and wholesalers selling prescription drugs and general merchandise at below cost under Wisconsin’s antiquated Unfair Sales Act, commonly known as the “minimum markup law.”
An army of blue descended on the Capitol Wednesday, with some 100 Walmart employees packing the hearing room and Capitol halls to show their support for the bill.
But proponents were no match for the special interests – the state’s convenience stores and status quo retailers – who have benefitted from the protectionist law that continues to cost consumers and the free market.