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May 28, 2015

Special needs school vouchers being added to Wisconsin budget

Wisconsin Capitol Building (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Wisconsin Capitol Building (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

Republicans leaders of the Wisconsin legislature’s budget writing committee say they plan to add language that would create a special needs private school voucher program.

The proposal, which the panel is expected to vote on late Tuesday night or by Wednesday, would give students with special needs the ability to attend private school using a taxpayer-funded voucher.

Several disability rights groups have opposed previous attempts to create a special needs voucher. They argue it would drain resources away from public schools, that many private schools lack the ability to properly handle special needs students, and that there would be fewer federal protections for those students outside of public schools. Nygren said people would still have the opportunity to say no to a voucher, and noted that there are plenty of parents who want to have the option available to them.

AUDIO: JFC co-chairs Alberta Darling and John Nygren (:17)

Efforts to create a special needs voucher program in previous sessions have been rejected by lawmakers.

Budget panel chairs reject Walker’s long-term care changes

Rep. Nygren, Sen. Darling

Rep. Nygren, Sen. Darling

Leaders of the state’s budget committee want a gradual approach to changing Wisconsin’s long-term care system.

Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal would overhaul the system which provides long-term care to more than 50,000 state residents who are elderly or have long-term disabilities. The state spends some $2 billion annually on the Family Care and IRIS Medicaid programs.

“We’re going to be saying no to the governor’s proposals dealing with IRIS and Family Care, but we’re going to be giving specific instructions on how we can look at the sustainability of these programs moving forward,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair, Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette) said Thursday.

The Republican governor’s proposal would have the state contract with insurance companies to manage both long-term care and medical care.

“We’re for keeping the strengths of Family Care, we’re for reforming things that need to be reformed in terms of better integrated care and better health outcomes and better costs,” said JFC co-chair, Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “And sustainability,” Nygren added.

Darling and Nygren said they’ll request that the state Department of Health Services work with stakeholders on a more modest package of changes.

Lisa Pugh, who serves as Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Wisconsin and Coordinator for the Wisconsin Disability Policy Partnership, was pleased with the decision, but urged caution.

“This new proposal already presumes where we are going. Advocates want to take a step back,” Pugh said in a statement. “We think we need to better understand and target the cost drivers in Medicaid and long-term care. Taxpayers are depending on us to get this right for the future. Let’s not presume we have the right answer before sitting down to have our first discussions about the problem.”

Wisconsin Assembly to take up FoodShare junk food bill

Healthy foods (WRN photo)

Healthy foods (WRN photo)

Wisconsin residents who receive FoodShare benefits would have to limit purchases of junk food, under a bill up for a vote in the state Assembly today. The legislation from Republicans would require at least two-thirds of the taxpayer-funded food stamps benefits to be used on “healthy food.”

Backers of the bill say it will help encourage healthy eating habits, while also preventing those receiving the benefits from using that money on “higher end” items, such as lobster and crab legs. State Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville), a sponsor of the bill, has said he’s heard numerous stories from clerks about people abusing the benefits.

Democrats have argued the measure amounts to Republicans acting like the “food police.” State Rep. Andy Jorgensen (D-Milton) said it fails to understand the different diets or access issues many of those on public assistance programs face.

A similar bill passed through the Assembly last session, but then died in the state Senate. Even if the legislature were to approve the bill and the governor signed it, Wisconsin would still need a federal waiver to put the requirements in place.

The Assembly is also expected to take up bills today that to require drug tests for some applicants for unemployment benefits and for certain job training programs.

Wisconsin budget panel rejects student loan refinancing authority

Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

Democrats on the legislature’s budget committee made an unsuccessful push Tuesday for creating a Wisconsin Student Loan Refinancing Authority.

The proposed amendment to the state budget would have created a state board that could help individuals pay off student loan debt, by giving them access to state-backed refinancing options. More than a half million Wisconsin residents are believed to have some amount of student loan debt, and state Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) argued that it greatly impacts their ability to contribute to the state’s economy. “They don’t have the disposable income to spend in our economy, and so what that does is really slow down our economy,” Taylor said.

With national student loan debt estimated to be above the $1.2 trillion mark, Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) noted that “it’s become an issue that deserves more attention. This could be a big step for us today by saying student loan debt is a priority.”

Majority Republicans on the budget-writing panel were skeptical though. Hudson Rep. Dean Knudson pointed out that there’s no guarantee the state could get anyone a better rate. “You are just plain pandering to people that are unhappy and upset, and rightly so, at the cost of their student loans.”

JFC co-chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) also noted that the discussion may be better focused on encouraging students to study in fields that are career ready out of college. “The degree, the field that they choose, is probably even more significant than any other conversation or any other subsidy that we can provide,” the Marinette Republican said. “If they’re not going into the fields that actually have job opportunities, there is no ability to be able to pay back that student debt.”

The proposal, which was similar to previously introduced legislation, failed on a party-line vote.

Lawmaker wants increase for Wisconsin law enforcement grants

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin)

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin)

Many communities are struggling with a rise in violent and drug-related crimes, and a state lawmaker believes helping local law enforcement get more officers on the street could help to address those issues.

State Representative Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) is looking for ways to boost the state’s Law Enforcement Officer Grants program from its current $2 million to $16 million. The fund is intended to help put additional beat officers on the street, although the New Berlin Republican also wants to let agencies add specialty officers as well – such as drug task force positions.

Sanfelippo’s proposal would also lift caps on the program, which currently limits applications to cities with a population above 25,000. He wants to open it to all communities, including local sheriff’s departments. “We looked at this grant program and thought, you know, why don’t we open this up and make it more available so that local municipalities and counties can take advantage of it,” he said.

The expansion would not require any new state revenue. Instead, Sanfelippo wants to move the money from other state programs which may not be as high of a priority, such as some local tourism grants, programs to inform the public about the dangers of smoking, or money set aside to boost the state’s walleye population. He asked, “Do we need to continue to fund these same programs, even though some of them may have met their intended goals, or can we reprioritize this money and put it into public safety, where we clearly have an issue?”

Sanfelippo says he hopes to introduce the bill later this session.