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March 28, 2015

Wisconsin Assembly passes 70 mph speed limit bill

The state Assembly has signed off on legislation that would allow for speed limits of up to 70 miles an hour on Wisconsin interstates. The bill gives the state Department of Transportation the authority to up the speed limit on roads, if it believes the change will not impact safety.

State Representative Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc), the sponsor of the proposal, believes it will actually make roads safer by allowing traffic to move at the same pace. He has also argued that the change is needed to bring Wisconsin in line with its neighbors, which have already adopted a 70 mph speed limit.

During debate in the Assembly on Tuesday, some lawmakers raised concerns about the proposal. Republican State Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) argued that allowing vehicles to travel faster means it will take longer for them to stop, which could increase the risk of crashes. The Marshfield Republican said that just a five mile an hour increase can add 14 yards to the stopping distance of a car, and 20 yards for a large truck. Spiros said he would like to see the bill include provisions that would allow the DOT to set a differential speed limit, under which cars could travel at 70, but trucks would have to move slower.

The legislation passed on a bi-partisan 76-22 vote. It now heads to the Senate.

Wisconsin Assembly to consider 70 mph speed limit

File photo

File photo

The state Assembly is set to consider legislation today that would clear the way for higher speed limits on Wisconsin highways.

The bill would allow the state Department of Transportation to set a maximum speed limit of 70 miles an hour on state highways. Proponents of the measure argue the change is needed to bring Wisconsin in line with neighboring states, which have already adopted the higher limits.

The measure has attracted some opposition though from car safety advocates, largely because the higher speed limit would apply to all vehicles traveling on the roads. Nick Jarmusz with AAA-Wisconsin says that concerns the auto club because allowing semi-trucks to up their speed can significantly reduce the time and distance it take for them to come to a stop in an emergency. He says “any time you have vehicles traveling faster, that’s going to increase the amount of stopping distance that they need…make it difficult for them to slow down.”

Jarmusz says those longer stop times put other motorists at risk. He points to crash statistics in other states that saw an increase in fatal crashes involving large trucks after their speed limits were increased. “In Minnesota and Iowa, the rate is at 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Wisconsin is at seven percent,” which he worries could go up if semis are allowed to travel at faster speeds.

Michigan, which also increased its speed limit to 70, does actually have a lower rate of fatal crashes involving semis than Wisconsin. Jarmusz notes the Michigan law has a differential speed limit, which requires semis to travel at 60 mph in areas where cars can go faster.

The bill is expected to pass the Assembly later today with bipartisan support, just as it did last session. Jarmusz says they are focusing on trying to convince the state Senate to put he brakes on the proposal, before it can clear the Legislature.

Wisconsin lawmakers continue work on school accountability bill

File photo

File photo

Despite some conflicting views in the Assembly and Senate on how the state should approach the issue, lawmakers continue to work on crafting school accountability legislation that both chambers can support.

Lawmakers have been working on bills to help failing taxpayer-funded schools improve since before the session began. State Senator Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) says the Assembly’s push to impose sanctions on poor-performing schools remains a sticking point with members of his chamber. The Pewaukee Republican says it’s a “situation where we are trying to hammer the failing schools, instead of trying to figure out how we can help the failing schools get success.”

The Assembly pulled back proposed changes to its version of a school accountability bill last week.

Farrow says the Senate is more focused on creating an evaluation system that gives parents information about how their school is doing. He says “if we give the parents the right information, the parents make the choice.” He argues that’s where the real accountability for school performance will come in.

Lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on a bill last year. Farrow remains optimistic about its chances this session.

Bill would limit political John Doe probes in Wisconsin

Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst)

Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst)

A state Senate committee took testimony Wednesday, on legislation rewriting Wisconsin’s John Doe law. “Two things that this bill is about. It’s about accountability and transparency,” said state Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), the bill’s author.

Existing law allows prosecutors – under judicial supervision – to investigate whether or not crimes have been committed. Tiffany said the law “does serve some good purpose,” but argued that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm abused the law and “was obsessed with getting involved in the political process.” That John Doe investigation was launched in 2013, looking into possible illegal coordination between conservative groups and Republican candidates in state recall elections in 2011 and 2012. A federal judge halted the proceedings last year.

Madison attorney Dean Strang testified in favor of the bill, and said he’s seen the state’s John Doe law abused too many times. “It’s not the people we’re worried about, it’s the tools we empower them to use, because law enforcement is competitive, make no mistake about that,” Strang said.

But former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann argued that the bill is motivated by partisanship. “Senate Bill 43 guts the strength of the John Doe, by removing numerous crimes for which public officials have been convicted in the past,” McCann said. Among those convicted through such probes, former legislative leaders Chuck Chvala and Scott Jensen, following the legislative caucus scandals more than a decade ago.

Critics allege the bill is a partisan effort to “wall off” politicians from being targeted by John Doe probes. “This is an attempt to end the John Doe in Milwaukee, so prosecutions won’t ensue against an organization that may give to Republicans, or Republican officeholders,” McCann said.

Committee vote delayed on Assembly school accountability bill

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (Photo: WRN)

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (Photo: WRN)

The chair of the Assembly Education Committee is postponing a vote on school accountability legislation.

A vote on a heavily amended version of the bill, which would impose sanctions on failing schools, had been scheduled to take place Thursday at the Capitol. Committee chair Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) announced Wednesday afternoon that he was delaying it though, citing new developments in efforts to reach a consensus on the legislation with the state Senate.

In a statement, the Fond du Lac Republican said the sponsor of a Senate school accountability bill has indicated he’s now open to including sanctions in the bill, something state Senator Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) had previously said he was opposed to. Thiesfeldt said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement can be made, with the bill coming to the floor this spring.

An amendment to the school accountability bill was introduced on Tuesday morning, prompting criticism from Democrats that major changes to the bill warranted a second public hearing. Republicans countered that the bill had already been the subject of 12 hours of public testimony, during which many of the issues contained in the amendment were addressed.

Thiesfeldt did not indicate when the rescheduled hearing might take place.