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Breaking down what lawmakers are working on in the end-of-session scramble

Shawn Johnson Wisconsin Public Radio It's officially the last minute for the Wisconsin State Legislature. While it's only mid-February, the state Assembly is scheduled to finish its 2015-2016 session later this week. That has majority Republican ...

Shawn Johnson

Wisconsin Public Radio

 

It's officially the last minute for the Wisconsin State Legislature.

While it's only mid-February, the state Assembly is scheduled to finish its 2015-2016 session later this week. That has majority Republican lawmakers scrambling to pass a wide range of bills before time runs out. The Assembly has more than 100 bills on its agenda Tuesday. The Senate has more than 50.

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Here are a few of the issues on the packed Tuesday calendar:

Sales of water utilities

Republican state senators made a last-minute change to their schedule Monday, adding a bill that would make it easier to sell municipal water or sewer utilities to private companies. Right now those sales have to be approved by referendum. This plan would make the referendum optional.  It's being pushed by the company Aqua America and fought by environmental groups, who worry it will make drinking water less safe in Wisconsin.

Laws that protect lakes

State senators are likely to scale back an Assembly bill that would have made it much easier for private landowners to dredge adjacent lakes. They're also likely to pass another Assembly bill that limits the power of counties to restrict development.

Allowing new nuclear power plants

The Senate could send a bill to the governor's desk that would lift Wisconsin's decades-old moratorium on new nuclear power plants. The measure's sponsors concede it's unlikely to lead to a new nuclear power plant being built here in the near future, but they say this at least provides the option. Environmental groups warn there will always be risks associated with storing and transporting nuclear fuel, and the state would be better off developing renewable energy.

Immigration

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Assembly Republicans are jumping head first into the immigration issue with two bills on today's calendar. One would prohibit local ordinances that ban police from inquiring about someone's immigration status. The other would ban local photo identification cards in lieu of a driver's license.

Electronic voter registration, with a catch

Wisconsin residents would soon have the option to register to vote online under a plan that passed the Senate last week and is poised to pass the Assembly today. The catch: It would also eliminate special registration deputies, which is why groups like the League of Women Voters strongly oppose the plan.

Changing the rules for legislators and county executives

A bill by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald would ban state legislators from also serving as county executives, a change Fitzgerald says would prevent "double-dipping" by public officials. Democrats call it a blatantly partisan bill aimed at Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, who is running as a Democrat for the Senate seat being vacated by outgoing Republican Sen. Rick Gudex of Fond du Lac.

Public schools

Among the surprise additions to the end-of-the-session agenda is a bill, amended by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, that would reduce what public school districts can raise in property taxes when they lose students to private voucher schools. The Assembly will also take up a bill that would subject the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association to open records requests, a response to the WIAA advising schools not to use chants like "air ball" at basketball games. In addition, the Assembly's agenda today includes a plan to create new experience-based teacher licenses in subjects like agriculture and marketing.

Walker's college tuition plan

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Walker used his annual State of the State address this year to call for several bills aimed at college affordability, including a tax deduction for college loan interest and increased funding for technical college grants. While modest in scale, higher education leaders have praised the plans, while Democrats blasted them for not going far enough. The Assembly will likely pass them today, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says his members will scale them back, citing the recent worse-than-expected state revenue forecast.

Penalizing fraud

It's rare that Republicans and Democrats agree on the definition of "fraud," but today may be the exception to the rule. The Assembly is set to pass a bipartisan bill that would criminalize fraud against the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. People who violate the plan could serve prison time. Another anti-fraud bill up for debate Tuesday is more contentious. It would increase penalties for unemployment insurance fraud, a change that's supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

Drug treatment programs

A variety of drug treatment bills are up for votes in the Assembly, including one that would increase funding for drug treatment and diversion programs. They're part of an ongoing effort by Marinette Republican Rep. John Nygren to combat heroin.

More money for the wrongfully convicted

A plan up for a vote in the Senate would increase what the state can award to people who've been sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. The current lifetime cap is $25,000. This bill would raise it to $1,000,000. It passed the Assembly last week.

More power for landlords

GOP Senators will likely send a bill to the governor's desk that would give landlords the power to evict tenants if they suspect criminal activity. Landlords say it will help them ensure a safe living space for other tenants. Critics say it gives landlords too much power and domestic violence groups say it could end up inadvertently hurting domestic violence victims.

More power for debt collectors

Businesses known as "debt buyers" purchase consumer debt for pennies on the dollar. A bill up for a vote in the Senate would help them pursue more of that debt in court. Another bill would open up a new market for collections agencies: They could be hired by libraries to collect on overdue books.

More WPR news is available on KUWS-FM 91.3 or online at wpr.org.

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