MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. –  In mid-January, as the Legislature was settling back in, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke predicted a “shorter” but “much more aggressive” 2018 session than normal.

At the time, Gov. Scott Walker Walker unveiled what he called an “Ambitious Agenda” for Wisconsin, “a comprehensive plan” that included “government reforms that challenge the status quo…”

Steineke (R-Kaukauna) was right on both of his predictions – although Assembly GOP leadership’s plans to wrap up by the end of February hit an “extraordinary” snag, with Walker’s school safety initiatives and some other unfinished business bringing lawmakers back to the floor.

So the anticipated extended campaign window in what promises to be a challenging year for the Republican majority is a little shorter than planned.

With apologies to John Lennon, legislation is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

And plenty of legislation moved through this “aggressive” session – much of it pretty good. No doubt there were some big-government duds (I’m looking at you Kimberly-Clark bailout bill. Would you hurry up and die already!) but there were some tremendous wins for conservatives, for taxpayers, for the free-market, and for liberty at large.

Today, MacIver tallies the liberty victories, the bad bills beaten back, and the missed opportunities.

CONSERVATIVE WINS

Tax Relief 

Shoppers and parents of dependent children will see some tax savings later this year, thanks to compromise legislation that passed along party lines. Walker signed the bill into law last week.

It provides a $100 per-child tax rebate, and a smaller sales tax holiday on certain items set for the first week in August. Assembly leadership had sought a broader $50 million sales tax holiday plan, but the Senate, lukewarm at best on the tax relief proposal, significantly trimmed the final version, to approximately $12 million.

Democrats blasted the $122 million tax rebate for families of dependent children 18 and under as an election year gimmick. In a theme reminiscent of congressional Democrats, Assembly liberals see the tax break as mere crumbs.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who is leaving the Assembly in pursuit of a Senate seat, accused his colleagues on the left of exhibiting little empathy for low-income residents living on the margins.

“A couple hundred bucks may be the difference between finding your stuff on the curb or having one more month” of rent, Kooyenga said. While the fiscal conservative said the plan wasn’t his idea of a “tax utopia,” he agreed with fellow Republicans who said Wisconsin’s tax revenue surplus doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to the taxpayers.

“Many would have liked to see this money stay in Madison to be spent on the government’s priorities. Thankfully, that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be returned to the hardworking taxpayers, so they can spend it on their priorities,” Walker said in a statement, thanking his fellow Republicans in the Legislature for passing his proposal.

Welfare Reform

Welfare reform is as conservative as hot dogs and apple pie. Republicans this session passed one of the most ambitious reform packages in the nation.

“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 called a special session to take up welfare reform.

The bills await Walker’s signature.

“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 FoodShare 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.

Honest Budgeting Prevails

One of the early conservative victories this session was a base budgeting review bill authored by Sen. David Craig (Town of Vernon) and Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield).

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 to the original base budget. The bill requires agencies periodically re-examine 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 in the Senate. “Wisconsin families and businesses have to put all their bills and receipts on the table when making their budgets and so should government.”

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, moved through the Republican-controlled Legislature, with some bipartisan support.

After an Assembly hearing with no opposition, the Senate passed the legislation 22-10, with four Democrats voting for the measure. The Assembly then passed it in late February during a marathon floor session day, which was supposed to be its last of 2018. Plans change.

As Craig said at the hearing, the bill, co-authored by Hutton, 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 the 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.”

Tax Conformity

While state Rep. Dale Kooyenga’s bid to bring back the governor’s $200 million income tax cut plan died before the Assembly floor, his tax conformity proposal did make it through.

Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), both CPAs, hammered out the conformity package that would line up Wisconsin’s tax code with the many changes made in the recent federal tax reform law. Doing so will create less confusion for filers and the government, the lawmakers say. It will also save taxpayers money and provide some “quiet” tax relief.

Conforming to federal tax changes, for instance, will allow taxpayers to use investments in Edvest College Savings plans for K-12 education, in parental choice programs, or with other education-related expenses.

Fraud Fighting 

Walker recently signed a bill that stiffens penalties for Unemployment Insurance fraud.

The measure, authored by Kapenga and Rep. Samantha Kerkman, makes 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 benefit fraud by increasing the penalty based on the amount of the fraud, the same way it works for other types of theft.

Regulation Relief

Wisconsin developers and homeowners would get some much-needed regulatory relief with the passage of an amended wetlands bill, authored by Steineke and Senate President Roger Roth (R-Appleton). Walker last week signed the measure into law.

Assembly Bill 547 exempts nonfederal and artificial wetlands from state Department of Natural Resources wetland permitting requirements.

While the left pushed a narrative of environmental destruction, the legislation simply ends the practice of the DNR requiring permits for any rut or crevasse filling up with rainwater not adjacent to truly navigable waters. In some cases, developers have had to go through the onerous permit process after portions of pre-developed land took on water.

The legislation maintains the state requirement for the mitigation of impacts from discharge to a nonfederal wetland, mandated before DNR may issue a wetland individual permit. It also creates a grant program for the restoration of certain wetlands and establishes a wetlands study council.

“Homeowners who felt their property rights were being infringed upon because of a small area on their property that had some wetland indicators but never were truly wet, [a]true habitat,” Steineke told Wisconsin Public Radio. “We also heard from family farmers who said they would like to expand their operations but couldn’t because of small, low-quality wetlands that they were unable to fill or in many cases unable to afford to mitigate.”

Ending The ‘Patchwork’

On yet another party-line vote, the Legislature passed a reform bill aimed at bringing statewide uniformity to employment law.

The lower house originally passed the measure in February. But an amendment tacked on to the bill that would have exempted tech giant Foxconn from portions of the reforms was sacked by the Senate, which sent the clean bill back to the Assembly.

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.

Democrats, unions, community organizers and other opponents claim Assembly Bill 748 is an assault on Wisconsin’s tradition of home rule. “The party of local control no more,” said Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), castigating Republicans and the bill during Senate floor debate.

Kapenga (R-Delafield), the bill’s co-author, said Republicans are indeed the party of local control, but employment law is a statewide concern.

“People view Wisconsin both internally and externally based on how uniform we are in employment law,” he told MacIver News on the Vicki McKenna Show. “When it comes to employment law and mandates on employers, we want to have uniformity throughout the state because it just makes it easier to do business here.”

Local governments could no longer create policy on labor agreements, “living wages,” rules on worker scheduling and a long list of other employment law that are more stringent or burdensome than state statute.

Transportation Reforms

It’s been over a year since the Legislative Audit Bureau released its report on the state highway program, which revealed systematic waste, fraud and abuse throughout the DOT leading to billions of dollars of waste. Auditors recommended numerous reforms to address those issues. After spending the year trying to increase highway funding instead, lawmakers finally got around to passing two simple reforms recommended by the auditors.

First, the DOT is now required to submit complete cost estimates with project authorization requests. That might seem like a fundamental principle in any budgeting process, but that wasn’t happening for the state’s road projects. Auditors discovered the partial estimates didn’t include engineering or inflation. That still doesn’t explain why major projects in August 2016 were 112 percent, $3 billion, over budget. However, having all the facts up front in the decision process can only help.

Auditors also recommended the state start using a “construction manager – general contractor” method in planning and constructing road projects. Bringing the contractor into the design phase of a project could reduce their uncertainty and risk – leading to lower prices. They can also recommend cost-saving changes based on their experience in actual road construction. The Legislature authorized the DOT to use this method on three projects over the next three years.

Groundbreaking Tort Reform

The Assembly – again – passed two key conservative reform measures during its “extraordinary session” late last month.

On a party-line vote, the Republican majority approved an amended Senate version of a tort reform bill that proponents say will reduce litigation expenses and bring common sense back to the legal process. Assembly Bill 773 now heads to the governor’s desk.

Civil justice reformers celebrated the legislation’s passage.

“AB 773 is a major victory for small to large Wisconsin businesses and will greatly reduce the cost of litigation. The legislation brings Wisconsin in line with the vast majority of other states when it comes to its discovery procedures and class action rules,”  Bill G. Smith, president of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council and state director for National Federation of Independent Business-Wisconsin, said in a statement.

Among other reforms, the bill takes on the escalating costs of discovery, or the pre-trial, evidence-gathering process. The legislation updates and brings Wisconsin in line with the federal civil code on discovery, disclosure, and class actions.

The bill would make Wisconsin one of the first states in the nation to bring transparency to litigation financing. These big bets on big litigation payouts are done in the shadows by law firms and investors who provide plaintiffs upfront cash in return for pushing potentially hefty-settlement lawsuits.

Assembly Bill 773 requires such “fishing” litigation agreements be disclosed to the parties unless stipulated or ordered by the court. Unlike discovery law, the federal government would be playing catch-up to Wisconsin on litigation finance disclosure.

“At the urging of U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the arm of the federal judiciary that oversees procedural rules recently decided to examine whether the court system should require all civil litigants to reveal financing deals with outsiders who have wagered on legal outcomes,” the Wall Street Journal noted in a piece headlined, “Lawsuit Funding, Long Hidden in the Shadows, Faces Calls for More Sunlight.”

The story notes that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is considering legislation that would demand class-action plaintiffs to disclose such funding sources. The bill previously passed in the House amid heavy objections from trial lawyers who claim the disclosure campaign would stifle legal action under the guise of transparency.

Useless Commissions

Sometimes you just have to know when to let go. That’s particularly so with useless government boards and commissions.

Walker last week signed Assembly Bill 330, which specifies that if a commission or a board has not taken any action to use its rule-making authority in a decade, it loses its rule-making authority. The bill, authored by Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) and Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee), is a small victory for limited government.

Other key, albeit expensive, legislation passed during this ambitious winter session included:

Juvenile Corrections Reforms

The Assembly sent to the governor’s desk a package of juvenile corrections reform bills that will, among other things, lead to the closure of the troubled Lincoln Hills youth corrections center. The bi-partisan bill passed unanimously, 90-0.

“We aren’t just closing Lincoln Hills,” said Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), co-author of the legislation, in a statement. “We’re establishing a new way to deal with troubled youth. Juvenile offenders will be placed at state or county facilities based on the severity of their offense. The vision is to keep these youth closer to home, tied to community, and engaged in building positive life skills.”

The pricey plan, which would tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in bonding, would create regional youth facilities around the state, among other programming initiatives.

“Incarcerated youth will now have access to the services and rehabilitation they need while accomplishing these goals closer to their home and families,” Rep. Evan Goyke (D- Milwaukee), said in the statement. “This is a proven model in other States and we can now establish and implement ‘The Wisconsin Model.’”

On Good Friday, the governor signed the legislation into law.

School Safety Bill 

The Assembly, with Democrats joining, did pass the key elements of Walker’s school security plan, including the creation of an Office of School Safety led by the Department of Justice. The new agency will administer $100 million in state grants to beef up security at Wisconsin’s schools. The safety initiatives passed more than a month after a student gunman fatally shot 17 people at a Florida high school.

Democrats called for more gun control measures, including gun bans. Ultra-liberal state Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), proposed several amendments to the state constitution that would undermine the Second Amendment, including a measure allowing local governments to regulate the carrying of arms.

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Assembly Republicans offered a bill that Vos says would do in Wisconsin what Congress appears poised to do nationally: tap into a federal database to expand background checks to long guns. Information would be shared through the National Instant Criminal Background System Section (NICS) managed by the FBI.

Vos said the bill is about enhancing the state system already in place.

Walker signed the school safety bill; the Assembly’s expanded background check bill would need the Senate’s blessing to move to the governor’s desk. That isn’t likely.

BEATING BACK BAD BILLS

Pricey Rural Spending 

One bill pushed by Walker that would have spent an additional $50 million per year on rural economic development also died at the Senate doors.

Assembly Bill 912, authored by Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) directs the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to distribute grants to economic development projects in counties with less than 155 people per square mile.

Opponents on the right were concerned about the steep $50 million new annual price tag, while Democrats said the bill didn’t spend enough.

The bill passed the Joint Finance Committee and the Assembly unanimously earlier this year, but was never scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor.

Alcohol Czar

This zombie bill seemed to die a couple of times, only to be resurrected during the session. It would appear – at least for now – conservatives have driven a stake through this grow-government legislation.

The controversial bill was blasted on nearly every side of Wisconsin’s alcohol industry – from crafter brewers and distillers to wineries and the state’s largest beer maker. It would transfer agents and the alcohol enforcement mission from the state Department of Revenue to a new Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement.

A director, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, would lead the agency and have the authority to hire six additional agents.

The agency would have broad authority to enforce Wisconsin’s complicated and protectionist three-tier alcohol production, distribution, and sales laws. Its agents, like those at Revenue, would have the power to make warrantless arrests.

Senate Bill 801, as it is listed, also would grant a special exemption to the Kohler American Resort to distribute on its properties the popular chocolate brandy it makes.

Lack of support from conservative senators ultimately doomed the legislation. Talk to Capitol insiders, though, and they’ll tell you that it’s unwise to ever declare this zombie bill dead.

Kimberly-Clark Pay-to-Stay Proposal

A bill to extend the same tax incentives given to Foxconn to struggling paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark failed to make it out of the Senate, but it, too, has an outside chance of a new life.

Kimberly-Clark earlier this year announced plans to shut down two Wisconsin plants and lay off 600 workers.

The plan was an attempt to convince the company to retain its Wisconsin operations by giving it a 17 percent tax credit for existing jobs paying at least $30,000-$100,000 and a 15 percent capital investment credit. That’s the same deal given to electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which is in the process of building a new $10 billion manufacturing campus in southeastern Wisconsin.

The unsolicited offer, derided by free-market groups including the MacIver Institute as a short-sighted bailout of a struggling private company, was not taken up by the Senate. It passed the Assembly 56-37 in February.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the GOP majority has no plans to come back to session, but …

“If the Senate does come back at some point, it would be to address the Kimberly-Clark issue,” he said in a statement. “That will be contingent on the company and the union reaching a deal and whether or not there is a need for state legislation.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Direct Primary Care

A bill codifying Direct Primary Care, a free-market solution to the mess Obamacare has left, died at the Senate doors.

Direct Primary Care is a free-market method of delivering health care in which patients pay their primary care doctors directly via a monthly fee, bypassing traditional health insurance that can obscure the actual costs of procedures. The innovative arrangement is often compared to a gym membership – doctors are paid a fixed monthly fee for a set menu of services, and waiting to see your doctor is virtually eliminated. It’s health care, not health insurance, but sources say the Association of Health Plans worked feverishly behind the scenes to kill the bill. Mission accomplished.

“I am extremely disappointed that we were unable to get the Direct Primary Care bill over the finish line in the Senate,” said Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis), co-author of the bill. “At a time when so many families around our state are clobbered with double-digit rate increases for health insurance and a lack of options, making a proven program like DPC more accessible would have been a tremendous benefit.”

“Change is never easy, but in this case, protecting the status quo over improving the lives of our constituents is inexcusable,” the lawmaker added.

Change will have to wait until next session.

Bottoms Up

A bill that would extend closing hours at Wisconsin wineries won approval in the Assembly. But it contained an amendment pushed by the Tavern League that critics say could have put in peril one of Wisconsin’s favorite pastimes: Tailgating.

Under current law, wineries are prohibited from staying open past 9 p.m., a protectionist restriction, critics assert, that stymies profit potential. It appears a poison pill amendment will keep early closing times in place for Wisconsin’s growing winery industry – at least for now.

‘Dead End’ 

An army of Walmart workers and fellow supporters 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 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 late last month, as some 100 Walmart employees packed 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.

Bureaucratic Reform 

Another reform measure checking bureaucratic power failed to make the cut.

Assembly Bill 880, introduced by Rep. Andre Jacque (R-DePere), would provide greater oversight to agencies employing so-called guidance documents used to set policy. Critics of the practice say agencies use the documents to bypass legislative oversight and review.

The same problems occurred during the Obama administration when agencies stopped creating rules and instead issued “guidance.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) earlier this year introduced a bill he calls the Guidance Out Of Darkness (GOOD) Act. It would require all federal agencies to post their guidance on special webpages where Congress, and the public, can easily review them.

“This common-sense bill would provide much-needed transparency to American businesses and consumers,” Johnson said in a press release.

AB 880 made it through committee and passed in the Assembly before dying at the Senate doors.

Improving Access To Dental Care

A bill aimed at helping fix Wisconsin’s dental shortage didn’t make it to the floor in either house.

But Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), author of the bill establishing licensure of dental therapists, said she’s pleased at least that the Legislature has begun the discussion.

Assembly Bill 945 continues the conservative conversation on lifting regulation and allowing the free market to heal the government-led health care morass.

Wisconsin’s dentist shortage doesn’t get much attention, but it should be on the Legislature’s radar. The problem is more extensive than most know: 1.5 million people in Wisconsin live in areas with a shortage of dentists, and only one-third of children on Medicaid saw a dentist in 2016, the worst rate of all states.

The dentist shortage is a particular problem in rural Wisconsin and in low-income areas – 42 percent of Wisconsinites making less than $25,000 per year cited trouble finding a dentist as the reason.

A market-centered reform allowing dental therapists to practice in Wisconsin would go a long way to help ease this shortage of dental care. Dental therapists are mid-level practitioners, similar to physician assistants. Under the general supervision of a dentist, DTs can perform routine dental procedures either at a dental practice or in satellite clinics in underserved areas.

Minnesota has had a similar, albeit more restricted, licensure program for years. It has increased accessibility, and it has been supported by people from all political stripes.

Wisconsin’s bill, however, is very much disliked by dentists and the state’s most prestigious dental school.

Reining in the DNR

Sorry, Southeast Wisconsin. Your break from reformulated gas went up in flames this session.

Senate Bill 463, which would have stopped the mandated sale of special reformulated gasoline, made it through the Senate only to wither in the Assembly.

The bill requires the Department of Natural Resources to request a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency from these heavy-handed Clean Air Act regulations.

The hope was that the Trump administration would have granted a waiver, which would have ended the prohibition on the sale of regular, non-reformulated gasoline in the designated areas.

State Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum), the author of the Assembly version, noted the environmental concerns of 20 years ago have dissipated in the six-county area of Southeast Wisconsin forced to live under the regulations. And there is an economic concern, Kremer told WUWM earlier this year.

“I have gas station owners on the county line and they’ve lost a lot of their business over the years because people jump counties where it’s 15 to 20 cents a gallon cheaper. So, this harms small business owners, it harms people on fixed incomes that live within these areas,” he said.

Reformulated gas stays – for now.

Another bill crafted to cut back on DNR’s regulatory zeal also failed to make it this session, despite a couple of amendments to placate itchy lawmakers. Senate Bill 459 requires the DNR to identify and repeal state-level regulations on air pollutants that are not covered under federal law. The proposal also sunsets any new such rule after 10 years. An amendment would have delayed implementation for more than two years.

No deal.

Burnt Cookie Bill 

The “cookie bill” crumbled again.

Assembly Bill 360, as it has the past several sessions, garnered sweeping support in the Senate only to fail to come up for an Assembly vote.

The legislation would have opened up “limited” face-to-face sales of homemade baked and canned goods without having to obtain a license.

Current law demands food processing plant licenses from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for certain facilities where food is manufactured or prepared for sale through processes such as baking, canning, freezing, and bottling, with specified exemptions. The requirements apply when the food in question happens to be 100 lemon bars and three dozen blueberry muffins sold at a farmers market.

Violators face jail time and hefty fines.

The current law, however, is in limbo. A Lafayette County judge last summer declared it unconstitutional.

Opponents of the bill, particularly the commercial baking industry, have long said opening up retail to home bakers could raise health concerns. But the judge who struck the “cookie law” in his decision said there are no real health hazards to home-baked goods sales.

An amendment to the Assembly bill would allow annual sales of up to $10,000 before a license is required. A version that moved through the Senate had set the limit at $25,000.

The “cookie bill” remains unbaked for another session.

Relentless Referendums 

A bill that would limit the number of times a school board may seek approval from voters to hike district revenue limits did get a hearing this winter session, but it moved no further.

Senate Bill 195, authored by Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), also would eliminate the distinction between recurring and nonrecurring referendums and would curtail the authority of a school board to include excess revenue generated for a recurring purpose in its base revenue per pupil in the determination of a district’s revenue limit.

Another Stroebel bill, Senate Bill 191, also stalled. The measure would limit when a school district can vote to have a referendum. It requires that school districts vote to authorize a referendum only at the school district’s annual meeting – not at special meetings called for that purpose. The bill also prohibits a vote to exceed a district’s revenue limit for recurring or nonrecurring purposes at special meetings.

In a session in which the Republican-controlled Legislature focused on delivering record funding to Wisconsin’s K-12 schools, Stroebel’s checks on referenda didn’t make the cut.

Investigating the John Doe Investigators

There will be no legislative investigation of the John Doe investigators – at least for now, and not as specified in a bill authored by Craig and Sanfelippo.

Because it arrived so late in the winter session, and because the language raised concerns about the security of private documents, sources say the bill never had a chance. It went nowhere, garnering very few Republican sponsors despite a general desire by conservatives to fully bring to light the abuses in one of Wisconsin’s darkest political investigations.

The bill creates a bicameral committee – with rarely used subpoena power – to compel former agents of the disbanded Government Accountability Board, and others to testify under oath about their involvement in the unconstitutional John Doe probe.

Issuing subpoenas, the committee “may summon and compel as necessary or convenient” public officials, government employees, or a private person who worked for or with the former GAB on an investigation.

Subpoenas could also be used to gather evidence or material, including John Doe records kept by government agents and others employed or connected with the GAB investigations.

A DOJ investigation concluded late last year found stacks of poorly kept records from state campaign finance and elections investigations going back nearly 30 years, retained in the office of the state Ethics Commission and the Elections Commission – GAB’s successor agencies. The investigation also found leaks of court-sealed John Doe records came from inside the GAB, and that files of thousands of conservative communications were labeled “Opposition Research.”

The Assembly has directed Attorney General Brad Schimel to expand his investigation into the GAB’s conduct in the John Doe probe. But it apparently wasn’t interested in doing its own investigation.

M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.