Wisconsin Senate OKs tax rebate, prison closure, school safety bills
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate wrapped up its two-year session Tuesday by signing off on bills that would close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison, create a $100 per-child tax rebate and lay out $100 million for schools to improve security.
Passage of the youth prison and tax rebate especially represented a victory for Gov. Scott Walker. The governor faces re-election in November and had urged the Senate to act on both measures.
“These aren’t Republican or (Democratic) issues,” Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said in a statement. “These are Wisconsin issues.”
All three bills now go to the state Assembly. Speaker Robin Vos said he supports both the prison and tax rebate proposals. His spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment on the school safety package’s prospects but the chamber is expected to take up all three measures Thursday.
The Lincoln Hills bill calls for closing the prison by 2021 and replacing it with smaller facilities. The measure cleared the Senate unanimously, just as it did last month in the Assembly. There was no debate in the Senate. The prison north of Wausau in Irma has been under federal investigation for three years amid allegations of inmate abuse by guards.
The Senate version of the prison bill is largely the same as what the Assembly passed, but it requires the Legislature’s budget committee to sign off on any spending on new juvenile facilities after Lincoln Hills closes. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that gives the Legislature more of a role going forward.
The Senate agreed with the Assembly on the $100 child tax rebate but scaled back provisions that would establish a sales tax holiday, making more items subject to the tax than the Assembly did to save $38 million in revenue. Under the Senate version of the bill, sales tax would be waived on clothing costing less than $75, a computer costing less than $750, computer supplies costing less than $250 and school supplies costing no more than $75.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling argued against the tax rebate, saying it wasn’t the most effective way to help families. Instead, she proposed a $3,000 income tax credit for child care services that Republicans rejected. Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who is running for governor, said giving families a $100 tax rebate for every child under age 18 just before the November election looked like a bribe.
The school safety bill, meanwhile, closely mirrored proposals Walker unveiled last week. The centerpiece of both plans is a $100 million grant program to pay for safety improvements. Specific references to the money being able to pay for armed guards included in Walker’s plan were removed by the Senate. But there’s no prohibition on using the money for that.
The Senate version also removed a provision allowing schools to share surveillance footage with law enforcement. Fitzgerald said they can already do that. The Senate version also doesn’t include Walker’s mandate that schools notify a parent or guardian within 48 hours of a bullying incident involving their child.
Senate consideration of the bill, and an Assembly Education Committee hearing on Walker’s proposals, came just hours after a shooting at a Maryland high school, a week after 3,000 high school students marched on the Wisconsin Capitol to demand gun control and a month after 17 people were killed at a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Democrats and other advocates have lamented that neither the Senate nor Walker’s proposals impose any gun regulations. Fitzgerald said it’s hard to build a consensus on gun control to get something passed this year.
Senate Democrats took turns on the chamber floor demanding tighter gun restrictions, starting with banning bump stocks and imposing universal background checks. Fitzgerald argued the Democrats’ proposals go far beyond what the Republicans are trying to do and he wasn’t going to pretend to solve the national gun debate in the Senate on Tuesday.
“The Wisconsin state Senate is the exact place to tackle this issue,” retorted Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach. “We are doing nothing. Nothing.”
The chamber ultimately approved the bill 28-4.
Hasenberg signaled Walker supports the Senate plan, writing in an email after the vote that the governor was thankful the chamber approved the bill and shares his commitment to making schools safer.