July 29, 2015

Governor Walker signs Wisconsin 20 week abortion ban

Governor Scott Walker on Monday morning signed controversial legislation into law that would ban abortions past the 20 week mark in a pregnancy.

The governor signed the bill during a ceremony in Oshkosh, a week after launching his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Walker said the bill is needed to protect children from feeling the pain of an abortion, which he and backers argue is possible at 20 weeks gestation. Walker said “when an unborn child can feel pain, most people think it’s important to protect that child.”

AUDIO: Gov. Scott Walker (:44)

The claim on fetal pain has been widely disputed by the medical community, with most experts arguing it’s not possible for a fetus to feel pain until much later in a pregnancy. During the legislative debate, multiple medical groups pushed back against the proposal.

The law would only allow abortions to be performed past the 20 week mark if the life of the mother is in danger. Otherwise it would be a felony for doctors, with up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

A federal court challenge is likely, due to the law not including exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. However, groups on both sides of the debate are unsure when or where it may come from. Only a single provider in the state offers abortions after the 20 week mark, and the procedure is really performed.


Planned Parenthood Wisconsin responds to calls for investigation

Several Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation of Planned Parenthood health clinics in Wisconsin, following the release of a video from an anti-abortion group that claims to show discussions about the sale of fetal body parts.

Planned Parenthood has described the secretly recorded video as “heavily edited” and said the discussions about pricing were actually about reimbursement costs for transporting donated tissue to research facilities, which it says is a common practice. The provider said any tissue is donated voluntarily and “there is no financial benefit…for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.”

Officials with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin argue there’s no reason for an investigation of its state operations, because fetal tissue donations are not allowed at any of its facilities. Executive Director Tanya Atkinson says it’s due to the extensive infrastructure that’s needed to participate.

AUDIO: Tanya Atkinson, Planned Parenthood (:08)

Atkinson called requests for an investigation by Republicans an attempt to turn the video into a “political opportunity,” noting that the group behind the video and its supporters are advocates for completely abolishing abortion and placing other restrictions on how women access health care.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg), one of the lawmakers calling for an investigation, does not accept Planned Parenthood’s claims that tissue collection is not done in Wisconsin. “No, I’m not going to just take their word for it. I think we need to see that and confirm that.”

AUDIO: Sen. Duey Stroebel (:14)

Atkinson says Planned Parenthood, which operates 22 health centers in the state and is entering its 80th anniversary in Wisconsin, will continue to be here, “despite all of the political attacks that will obviously come our way.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court ends probe into Walker campaign

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

The state Supreme Court has ordered an end to an investigation into what prosecutors had argued was illegal coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s campaign and outside conservative groups during the 2012 recall elections.

The probe, commonly referred to as the “John Doe,” was centered on the theory that the groups were violating state law by working with the campaign on issues such as messaging and fundraising in what amounted to a “criminal scheme.” The Supreme Court had combined three challenges to the investigation, two of which had been brought by unnamed parties.

In a 4-2 decision issued Thursday morning, the majority ruled that the investigation went beyond existing state campaign finance laws and ordered an end to the probe. The decision mirrors a lower court ruling, which found no laws were violated.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate in the case.

Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Gableman said “It is utterly clear that the special prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing. In other words, the special prosecutor was the instigator of a “perfect storm” of wrongs that was visited upon the innocent Unnamed Movants and those who dared to associate with them.”

Gableman added, “To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law. Consequently, the investigation is closed.”

In her dissent, Justice Shirley Abrahamson blasted the decision to end the probe, writing that “the majority opinion adopts an unprecedented and faulty interpretation of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law and of the First Amendment. In doing so, the majority opinion delivers a significant blow to Wisconsin’s campaign finance law.”

One of the targets of the probe, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, praised the ruling. Todd Graves, the group’s attorney, said the outcome proves prosecutors “acted as if key protections in our nation’s Bill of Rights simply did not apply.” Graves said they are “pleased that the court agrees with the position we’ve maintained from the time our clients first learned of this improper political investigation.”

A spokeswoman for Governor Scott Walker’s presidential campaign said “Today’s ruling confirmed no laws were broken, a ruling that was previously stated by both a state and federal judge. It is time to move past this unwarranted investigation that has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Critics were quick to attack the decision, and the potential implications it could have for Wisconsin campaign finance laws. Jay Heck with Common Cause in Wisconsin said “a highly compromised Wisconsin Supreme Court majority has issued a highly flawed decision.” He argued that the ruling “could conceivably now lead to unlimited coordination between outside spending groups with candidate committees and effectively render contribution limits meaningless in Wisconsin.”

Scot Ross with One Wisconsin Now also raised questions about the motivations behind the decision, noting that “The four justices whose opinion halts an investigation and possible prosecution of Walker’s campaign and allies and orders records to be destroyed were the beneficiaries of at least $10 million in campaign spending by parties named in the investigation.”

In a statement, special prosecutor Franciz Schmitz said he was disappointed with the ruling and disagreed with the conclusions drawn by court. “The decision represents a loss for all of the citizens of Wisconsin – independents, Democrats and Republicans alike. It defies common sense that a Wisconsin resident of average means who gives $25 to a campaign has his or her name publicly reported under the law but, according to this decision, someone who gives, for example, $100,000 to a group which closely coordinates with the same campaign can remain anonymous,” he said.

Schmitz also noted that it’s “unfortunate that the citizens of Wisconsin will not have the benefit of a public discussion of the facts and the law because the court decided not to allow oral argument.”

The ruling likely puts a stop to the investigation, which was launched almost three years ago. Heck argued that prosecutors should consider asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.

Senate approves Milwaukee Bucks arena financing plan

An artist's concept of the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

An artist’s concept of the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

With bipartisan support, the state Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that provides taxpayer funding for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

The bill, which calls for taxpayers to pick up about half the cost of the $500 million project, cleared the Senate on a 21-10 vote, with six Democrats crossing the aisle to support the financing package. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) helped the lead the charge for Democratic support, arguing “we are all in this together.” The Milwaukee Democrat said the money may not be generated in lawmakers’ districts, but the revenue brought in from the Bucks does end up there and in state programs they benefit from.

Taylor’s arguments were echoed by several other Milwaukee-area lawmakers, who also pointed to the economic benefits a new arena would have for their city. Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd (D-Milwaukee) said residents of her community are “excited” about the prospect of revitalizing Milwaukee’s downtown. “I think by us doing this…project, we will see our downtown thrive again.”

Democrats were able to pull for concessions in the bill, such as a $2 ticket surcharge, after it became clear bipartisan support would be necessary to pass the legislation through the Senate. Several Republican lawmakers have voice disagreement with using state taxpayer funding to help finance the arena, which was a key reason behind Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) decision to vote against the package.

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) also took issue with the threats by the Bucks’ owners and the NBA to take the team out of Milwaukee, if a new arena is not built. “When someone says give us $400 million or we will take our basketball and $6.5 million in annual income tax revenues to Vegas, you can’t call that a negotiation. It is nothing short of a capitulation by the state,” Nass said in a statement. He argued the deal simply shows that “NBA blackmail works.”

The bill now heads to the Assembly, where its fate remains uncertain. In a joint statement released Wednesday evening, leaders from both parties said “We will take a close look at the new version of the bill that the Senate just approved to determine if any changes are needed. We would like to give our members and the public time to review the updated legislation and have a bipartisan discussion. We are optimistic that a vote on the measure will take place in the next few weeks.”

Talks continue over funding for Milwaukee Bucks arena

An artist's concept of the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

An artist’s concept of the new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

State lawmakers were once again meeting behind closed doors this morning, as the Senate continues work on a plan to provide some public financing for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. Leaders say the proposal could come to the floor of the Senate for a vote later today.

Republicans are working to drum up some Democratic support for the plan, after several GOP Senators indicated they will not support state tax dollars being used to help fund the $500 million arena. Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) said he remains opposed to that idea, arguing that it’s an issue of fairness. The Green Bay Republican points to the extra sales taxes residents of his district have been paying to help support renovations at Lambeau Field. He said his constituents question why Milwaukee residents can’t “help carry the load,” which is why he plans to vote no.

Sen. Luther Olson (R-Ripon) does plan to back the bill, which could include a surcharge on Bucks’ ticket sales to help pay for the arena. “It makes the people who go to the game pay for the stadium, and I think that needs to get done so there can be enough votes to pass this,” Olson said. “I think it’s fine.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said this morning that it’s possible lawmakers could be on the floor to vote on the bill later this afternoon. If the Senate does pass the bill, it remains unclear when the Assembly may return to take up the proposal.

Affiliate WIBA contributed to this report.