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Senate bills target drivers who text, child lifejacket use

Kids wear life jackets while kayaking in the Superior this summer. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The Wisconsin Senate passed bills focusing on texting while driving, school policies to address bullying and child life jacket use this week.

Mandatory lifejackets

Kids under age 10 would have to wear lifejackets on certain types of boats under a plan that cleared the Wisconsin Senate Tuesday.

The proposal would cover kids who ride on boats that are 26 feet long or smaller. Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, called it a case of weighing personal liberties versus government regulation. Sullivan says requiring children to wear lifejackets is a minor regulation similar to fastening a seat belt in a car. The potential for harm if a child doesn't wear a lifejacket is extreme.

Parents who don't follow the law would be warned the first time, but they could be fined up to $100 for repeat offenses.

Wisconsin is one of two states that don't have lifejacket laws for kids. Similar plans have been defeated in the legislature going back more than a decade. Although this bill passed on a voice vote.

Texting while driving

The State Senate voted to ban drivers of all ages from sending text messages while they're behind the wheel. The plan would cover "texting" from any kind of cell phone or electronic device. Violators could be fined up to $400.

Longtime lawmaker Alan Lasee, R-DePere, says he's seen first hand how dangerous it can be when people try to send text messages and drive at the same time. He says his plan will send a message and save lives.

There was a lot of back and forth on who this plan should cover. The plan the Senate was scheduled to vote on would have only covered drivers under 18. But lawmakers from both parties questioned the logic of that move. Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, was among those who successfully expanded the plan to cover everyone.

"Texting is texting whether you're 16, 14 or 94," he says.

Not everyone was onboard, though. Sen.Neil Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, pointed out that state law already bans inattentive driving.

Someone is driving poorly or well," he says. "Making texting illegal is splitting hairs."

The plan passed on a 27-5 vote and now heads to the State Assembly.

Bullying policies

All schools would have to have policies in place to prevent bullying under a plan that cleared the State Senate Tuesday. Schools would also have to have plans for protecting students who report bullies to teachers or administrators.

Kedzie says the plan is about curbing behavior that's gotten out of hand, in some cases driving kids to suicide. He says school should be a safe environment where students can learn and have fun, not a place they fear or that interferes with getting a good education.

The plan passed on a 29-3 vote and heads next to the Assembly.

Earlier this month the Department of Public Instruction announced it would offer all districts free anti-bullying curriculum. But right now it's up to districts to decide whether they want to use that material or not.

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