November 25, 2015

Wisconsin Democrats offer ‘Patients Reproductive Health Care Act’

Democrats unveil their Patients Reproductive Health Care Act at the Capitol. (Photo: WRN)

Democrats unveil their Patients Reproductive Health Care Act at the Capitol. (Photo: WRN)

Legislative Democrats are proposing a bill they say will keep politics from influencing doctor-patient relationships.

Dubbed the “Patients Reproductive Health Care Act,” the legislation seeks to wipe out controversial laws enacted in recent years that Democrats argue are intended to restrict access to reproductive health care for women, including abortions. Those include a requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, which is currently blocked by a federal court ruling.

The measure also seeks to end requirements that doctors discuss what the authors call “junk science” with their patients and offers stronger penalties for those who harass or intimidate patients and doctors.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), a sponsor of the bill, said the goal is “to ensure that all patients in Wisconsin have access to comprehensive, evidence-based health care.”

The legislation also seeks to give doctors the right to offer a full slate of reproductive health services, including abortions, at any facility where maternal health care is offered, even if it’s a private religious hospital. Erpenbach said that’s needed to due to the high number of health care mergers in the state. “You have providers merging with providers…so the ability for a woman to get comprehensive health care is limited, depending on where you happen to live in the state.”

The legislation is unlikely to see much movement in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Wisconsin lawmakers take testimony on ‘transgender bathroom’ bill

The public packs a hearing room at the Capitol for a hearing on the 'transgender bathroom' bill. (Photo: WRN)

The public packs a hearing room at the Capitol for a hearing on the ‘transgender bathroom’ bill. (Photo: WRN)

A legislative committee heard hours of testimony Thursday on a bill aimed at addressing which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students can use in public schools.

The legislation, proposed by state Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) and Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), would create a statewide policy that requires public school districts to restrict the use of those facilities to students of a single sex, effectively requiring students with a gender identity different from the biological sex from entering them. If asked, districts would still have to provide reasonable accommodations for students by providing access to a private bathroom or changing room.

Several school districts have already adopted their own policies on the issue, in the midst of a national debate over the rights of transgender members of the population. During Thursday’s hearing before an Assembly committee, John Forester with the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance urged the Legislature to respect those policies and to not let politics dictate a sensitive issue. “Don’t put 424 school districts and 860,000 students in the middle of all of this…I have a lot of confidence in my people,” he said.

Rep. Kremer said a statewide policy is needed though to help districts navigate the tricky issue, while protecting them from possible federal lawsuits. The Kewaskum Republican argued the federal government is trying to “impose its will” on schools by requiring kids of the same sex to shower next to each other. “That’s not a societal norm,” he said.

Supporters and opponents filled a Capitol hearing room Thursday, with many people sitting on the floors and standing for hours to have a chance to testify. A full day of testimony included parents, students, and others weighing in on the potential impact of the bill. Many backers of the legislation cited concerns about students trying to abuse the transgender loophole to gain access to opposite sex facilities, while others questioned why the needs of students without gender identity concerns would carry less weight in schools. Julainne Appling with Wisconsin Family Action said “it’s important to remember that a public school district has a responsibility for the privacy and safety of all students, not just one particular class of students.”

One Madison high school student, who identifies in gender neutral ways, testified their school has already taken steps to address the concerns by opening a multi-stalled unisex restroom, which the bill would no longer permit. They noted that it could also put the safety of trans students at risk. “A trans kid who identifies and dresses like a female may not be accepted in the boys’ restroom…this would create more bullying and possibly dangerous situations for transgendered students,” they said.

A committee vote on the legislation has not yet been scheduled, while it also remains unclear whether the bill has enough votes to pass in either chamber of the Legislature.

Lawmakers take testimony on lifting nuclear moratorium

Lawmakers take testimony at the Capitol. (Photo: Andrew Becket)

Lawmakers take testimony at the Capitol. (Photo: Andrew Becket)

Advocates for nuclear energy called on lawmakers to lift a long-standing moratorium on building new power plants in the state, during a hearing held at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

The bill from state Representative Kevin Petersen (R-Waupaca) would remove a requirement that blocks the state from approving construction of new nuclear reactors unless a federal site exists to store the waste and it can be shown it would benefit ratepayers. The requirements were put in place in 1983, but Petersen told the committee that nuclear power has changed a great deal since then, with cleaner technology allowing spent fuel to often be reused in other facilities and reducing concerns about long-term storage. “Advanced nuclear energy is a clean, safe and affordable way to meet clean energy demands in Wisconsin, the United States, and around the world,” he said.

Lawmakers heard from a long line of industry experts, students, and construction companies during a nearly three-hour long hearing, with many arguing nuclear energy could help the state meet federal emissions standards and create new jobs. Public Service Commission member Mike Huebsch, who backed a similar bill when he was in the state Legislature, argued “the time has come for Wisconsin to enter the discussion of 21st nuclear power.”

While they did not testify during the hearing, Clean Wisconsin was among just a handful of those registering against the bill. The group’s Amber Meyer Smith said they feel the current nuclear moratorium is a common sense law that protects the environment and ratepayers, and argued the state should pursue cleaner and renewable technologies like wind and solar. She also countered claims that nuclear power is a zero emission and cheap technology, since uranium still has to be mined and the average cost per kilowatt hour is about 10 cents higher than wind or coal.

The state currently has two functioning nuclear reactors, located at the Point Beach facility in Two Rivers. Any proposed new power plant would still need state and federal approval.

Wisconsin committee holding hearing on ending nuclear moratorium

The Point Beach nuclear facility in Two Rivers, WI (Photo: NextEra Energy)

The Point Beach nuclear facility in Two Rivers, WI (Photo: NextEra Energy)

Wisconsin lawmakers are reviving a push to repeal a long standing state moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants.

Currently, state regulators are prohibited from approving new construction of nuclear power facilities unless federal storage site exists for nuclear waste and it’s shown the plant would not be a burden on ratepayers. Because a storage facility does not currently exist, the rule has effectively halted any potential plans for projects in the state.

A bill from state Rep. Kevin Peterson (R-Waupaca) would remove those criteria. The measure is scheduled for a hearing at the Capitol later today.

Both Republicans and Democrats have pushed for similar bills in the past with little success. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said this week that he thinks considering nuclear power is in line with federal efforts to reduce carbon emissions, while Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) also said the issues is worth giving a public hearing. Still, the Kenosha Democrat added that any discussion of nuclear also has to look at the safe disposal of nuclear waste. “It has to be part of the equation,” Barca said.

There is currently only one operational nuclear power plant in the state, located in Two Rivers.

Assembly approves Wisconsin elections agency overhaul

(File photo: WRN)

(File photo: WRN)

The state agency that oversees elections and ethics issues in Wisconsin would be split into two new entities, under legislation now headed to Governor Scott Walker’s desk. The state Assembly on Monday signed-off on changes to the bill that were made in the state Senate earlier this month.

The legislation calls for splitting the GAB into separate ethics and elections commissions, with six-member boards appointed on a partisan basis. The bill has been the subject of heated criticism from Democrats and watchdog groups, who argue it will limit transparency and set up a highly partisan system that makes it more difficult to eliminate government corruption.

Republicans have maintained the current GAB, which was created in 2008, was granted too much power, which they argue has been abused through investigations that have targeted conservative lawmakers and political groups. Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson), a sponsor of the bill, said Monday that the agency’s “actions over these last few years have been a stain on Wisconsin’s reputation for clean and open government” and argued that it would be a mistake to let more time pass without making serious reforms at the agency.

A spokesman with the GAB declined to comment on final passage of the bill.

A spokeswoman for Governor Walker said he would review the final version of the bill, but added Walker supports “overall reform of the GAB to provide a replacement that is fair, transparent, and accountable to Wisconsinites.”