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Senate dodging hot-button issues in final week

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Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin State Capitol

MADISON — The state Senate is dodging hot-button issues in its final working day of the year this week, putting off votes on bills imposing new abortion restrictions and loosening regulations on high-capacity water wells.

The Assembly, meanwhile, is taking a different approach, with expected votes Thursday on imposing a new photo identification requirement for voting while the current law is on hold and restricting public access to an iron ore mine site in northern Wisconsin.

The legislative action comes at the same time Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican seeking re-election next year, has urged lawmakers to focus on his priorities, which are creating jobs and improving the economy.

Democrats have also accused the Republican-controlled Legislature of getting distracted with social issues such as abortion and a bill passed last week that makes it easier for public schools to keep mascots that some people deem offensive.

“We’ve been focusing on everything but jobs and the economy,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

Walker has sent clear signals to the Legislature that, at least publicly, he’s not interested in bills that stray from his stated priorities.

“To me, it’s not on my radar if it’s not about jobs, balancing the budget or lowering taxes,” Walker said Thursday when asked if he would sign the mascot bill. The day after he made those comments, the Senate released the agenda for its final day in session Tuesday. It didn’t include a pair of abortion bills or the high-capacity wells measure, both of which were expected to be voted on before lawmakers left for the year.

“We’d like to end on a non-controversial note,” said Dan Romportl, spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Erpenbach had promised “all out hell” if the abortion bills came up for debate, a shot across the bow that may have worried both Walker and Republican senators facing re-election next year.

“If I’m Scott Walker, the last thing I want to have on my desk are these kinds of things,” Erpenbach said.

While the Senate is taking a less bumpy road to the finish line, the Assembly is taking up the photo ID bill. Current law is on hold pending a federal lawsuit, but Assembly Republicans are pushing an alternative plan in the meantime. No Senate Republican has signed on, and Fitzgerald has said he won’t bring the bill up.

“I think that’s a huge mistake,” Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca told Assembly Republicans of their plan to take up the voter ID bill. Barca called it an “extremely polarizing” issue that is a waste of time since it’s going nowhere in the Senate.

Both the Assembly and Senate plan to vote on a constitutional amendment that would change the way the chief justice of the state Supreme Court is selected. While that will generate Democratic opposition, it’s a long way from becoming reality. It would need to clear the Legislature this year, again next session, and be approved by a vote of the people before taking effect.

The Assembly is expected to approve a bill that cleared the Senate last week to limit public access to a proposed iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills near Lake Superior. That passed the Senate last week and would head to Walker if it clears the Assembly.

In addition to complaining that Republicans haven’t done enough this year to improve the economy and create jobs, Democrats last week called on them to take action on a host of Democratic economic development proposals, but none have been scheduled for a vote.

Other issues being pushed by Democrats and some special interests appear to have little traction among Republicans. That includes reforming the way that political boundaries are drawn, known as redistricting, and finding ways to help lessen student loan debt.

One bipartisan issue, raising the speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph, will also have to wait until next year. While it passed the Assembly, for now it is stalled in a Senate committee.

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