State Assembly Passes and Amends Controversial Legislation

Mar 21, 2014

Lawmakers in Madison take on controversial legislation
Credit Ann Althouse, Flickr

The state Assembly pulled another all-nighter. Lawmakers went into session at around 2 p.m. Thursday and did not adjourn until just before 5 a.m. on Friday.

There were a number of controversial items on the docket.

Asbestos Lawsuits and Damages Awarded

One of the first up was a bill that would change the law concerning asbestos lawsuits and damages awarded.

Under current law, people can either file suit against the company that manufactured or used the asbestos. There’s also the option to file a claim with the trusts set up by companies that have gone bankrupt.

The change would require the person or people suing to do both, and disclose that information.

Republicans alleged that it’s common for people to double dip by collecting from both companies and the trusts.

Democrats say the proposed change means people could end up receiving less in damages, because a judge or jury would decide whether the company or trusts pay out, and the trusts are running out of money. Democrat Dana Wachs says that in Wisconsin, veterans are the people largely filing the suits. He pleaded with Republicans not to pass the legislation.

“All the way back in the 40s, the manufacturers of these products knew, they knew that these products would cause injury and death. But it doesn’t matter, Mr. Speaker. According to this body that doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter that these people did their best for this country. Doesn’t matter that these people were innocent. It doesn’t matter because the corporation has to win,” Wachs says.

But the GOP says the way things work now simply aren’t sustainable.

“Every company that has produced asbestos is going to go bankrupt if we’re not putting some control on this pot of money, which is not an endless pot of money," Republican Jim Ott says. "The purpose of this bill is to make sure that someone who is suing a solvent company is not also dipping into one of these trusts.”

Early Voting

The Assembly had a number of bills to get through, including one that would limit early voting. The legislation passed on a party line vote. If signed by Gov. Walker, early voting will be limited to Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Republican Kathy Bernier says this bill is about uniformity and fairness. She’s from a small town in Chippewa County.

“My polling place didn’t open til 9 o’clock in the morning because they had the latitude. A small municipality didn’t have to have the polls open…they could open at 7 a.m., 8 a.m., or 9 a.m.," Bernier says. "I didn’t have the same opportunity to go to the polls in the morning before I went to work as somebody else in a larger city, because my town chose to open at 9 a.m."

However, Democrats argue that this bill does nothing for uniformity and fairness because a city with 630,000 residents should not be limited to the same hours as a town of 50,000.

Democrat Fred Kessler also contends that this change is about limiting the minority vote.

“Forty five thousand people, most of them African Americans, most of them Latinos in Milwaukee voted early voting last time. They went to the polls early so that they could vote," Kessler says. "We had 87 percent turnout in Milwaukee. We had record turnouts in Madison. We had record turnouts all over. And now suddenly we are passing a law that’s going to limit the right of the city of Milwaukee and the city of Madison and the city of Racine and the city of Kenosha.”

Kessler says the state will be setting itself up for another round of lawsuits, because this change would go against section two of the Voting Rights Act.

School Accountability

The much debated school accountability bill also passed the Assembly.

Authors of the legislation wanted to force public schools that receive failing grades for three years in a row to either close or convert to charter schools. That provision was removed because there was not enough support.

What remained was a provision requiring all schools that take public money publicly report performance data.

Oral Chemotherapy Treatment

Finally, the Assembly also passed legislation allowing for cheaper oral chemotherapy treatment. The approved legislation will cap co-pays for the drug at $100 a month.

Two Republicans voted against the amendment with Democrats who wanted insurers to offer the pill at the same cost as the much cheaper intravenous chemotherapy.