2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Wisconsin

In a year dominated by issues of job creation, child care reform, and discussions of how to expand mass transit, Wisconsin also made fantastic strides in efforts to green the state, protect pedestrians, create domestic partnership benefits, and ease the consequences of license suspension on low-income communities.

Green Energy:  SB 651 authorized the Green to Gold Fund, a unique, $100 million revolving loan fund designed to help manufacturers move into clean energy production or improve their energy efficiency.  The fund was announced by Gov. Jim Doyle during his State of the State address, following on the heels of an August 2009 announcement that clean energy manufacturing would be the sole beneficiary of the entire $55 million in State Energy Program funding received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Enacted in May 2009, AB 255 authorizes local governments to make loans to residential property owners interested in making renewable energy improvements.  SB 624, which passed in May 2010, expands the law to commercial and industrial properties, and adds water efficiency projects to the list of eligible improvements.  Gov. Doyle vetoed a green buildings law, arguing it was unworkable and might delay some building projects.

Regional Transportation AuthoritiesAB 75, which included a proposal to create regional transportation authorities (RTA), was enacted in June 2009.  It gives communities the ability to provide stable funding for transit as well as expands local transportation options in an effort to not only minimize the effects of traffic and automobile dependence, but to improve worker access to jobs and vice versa.

Toxic Chemicals:  On March 3, 2010, Gov. Doyle signed the BPA Free Kids Act into law, making Wisconsin the third state in the country to ban the toxic chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) from children's products like bottles and sippy cups. 

Bike-Friendly LegislationOne of the nation’s top four bicycle-friendly states enacted two significant policies aimed at further protecting cyclists and pedestrians.  “Dooring” legislation puts the onus on drivers to look for cyclists before opening car doors and fines drivers who violate the new law, while their Complete Streets legislation is designed to enable safe access for all, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation.  Wisconsin’s 2010-2011 state budget also contains $5 million specifically for bicycle infrastructure, the first state-funded source of its kind geared toward planning and constructing bicycle facilities.

Education:  A number of new programs were enacted to improve the school quality:

  • Anti-Bullying:  SB 154 was enacted to require the Department of Public Instruction to develop a model school policy on bullying and requires school boards to adopt a policy on bullying.
  • Sex Education:  Gov. Doyle signed the Healthy Youth Act into law, which raises state standards for sex education to a comprehensive sexuality education model, ensuring Wisconsin public school students get effective, age-appropriate, and medically accurate information about reproduction.  
  • Healthy School Lunches:  A Farm to School bill passed in April 2010 was signed into law by Gov. Doyle — besides creating the Farm to School Advisory Council, the bill helps get locally-grown food to school cafeterias.
  • Child Care Reform:  A proposal that would create a program for a Quality Ratings Improvement System for Wisconsin child care providers was introduced by Gov. Doyle in January and has been submitted to the Joint Committee on Finance for final approval.  Dubbed “YoungStar,” the program creates a five-star rating system for child care providers based on education, learning environment, business practices, and the health and well-being of children.

Electronic Medical Records:  On May 11, 2010, Gov. Doyle signed the WIRED for Health Act into law.  The new law requires all hospitals and clinics in the state to link together to share patient information, which will allow medical providers to not only improve health outcomes, but also avoid duplicative tests and decrease overall costs.

Criminal Justice: The Fair Justice Act expands the eligibility criteria for obtaining a public defender in the criminal justice program, so that a single person who earns less than 115% of the federal poverty line - or $259.50/week - would qualify, the same criteria as that of the Wisconsin Works program, which provides aid and employment support to the poor.

Domestic Partnerships:  Wisconsin became the first state with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions to recognize domestic partnerships. Under the budget provision, it also became the first Midwestern state to extend legal protections to same-sex couples, offering 43 of the more than 200 rights and benefits granted to married couples.

Job Access & Driver’s License Reform:  Wisconsin passed a bevy of legislation aimed at balancing infractions of the law with the often-severe consequences of license suspensions.  Not only do non-driving-related license suspensions disproportionately affect low-income communities by reducing their transportation options and decreasing their chances of working their way out of poverty, but a records review linked suspended/revoked licenses to an ongoing epidemic of hit-and-run accidents.  The following bills were signed into law in May 2009:

  • AB 60: The Driver’s License Equity Act creates a payment plan for poor drivers, allowing them to keep their licenses as they pay their fines. 
  • AB 61: Justice for Drivers Act provides judges with the ability to use discretion when determining license suspensions for drug violations on a case-by-case basis, allowing courts to remain tough on drug violations but fair toward infractions that are not related to driving.
  • AB 177: The Driver’s Fairness Act allows judicial discretion when suspending drivers for a fourth offense for Operating After Revocation (OAR), lifting the heavy costs placed on both the courts and those in poverty. 
  • AB 178: The Driver’s License Modernization Act changes the law related to the timing of a license suspension by removing outdated and restrictive requirements for the Department of Transportation, allowing drivers to get their licenses and legally drive to work in a timely manner.  Race-based mascots: In May 2010, Gov. Doyle signed SB 25 into law, a bill that would require the state’s Dept. of Public Instruction to investigate complaints about Indian names, logos, or mascots.  Schools that do not comply with a ruling can face fines of up to $1,000 per day. 

Payday Lending:  In the world of payday lending reform, Wisconsin’s SB 530 limits loans to $1,500 or 35% of monthly income, whichever is less, and mandates that borrowers can only renew their loans once.  The bill, which was signed into law on Tuesday, also places limits on where payday loan stores can be located, but does nothing to cap interest rates.  However, Gov. Doyle used his powerful veto powers to toughen the bill, banning auto title loans and eliminating all interest charged by lenders after a payday loan comes due.

Campaign Finance Reform: The Assembly and the Senate had difficulty agreeing on which bills to take up.  A bill (SB 68) improving the disclosure of out-of-state campaign money as well as another bill (AB 619) that would have allowed local governments to experiment with innovative campaign finance policies were both passed by the Assembly, but the Senate refused to take up either one.  Yet the Senate passed legislation requiring corporation to get shareholder approval before using their money for election spending, but the Assembly refused to act on it. Also, a bill (SB 43) that would close the state’s issue ad loophole also passed the Senate only to meet Assembly resistance to a vote.  However, the State Government Accountability Board did approve an administrative rule to close an issue ad loophole, as well as an emergency rule requiring disclosure of corporate election spending that goes as far as current laws allow.  Wisconsin also passed the Impartial Justice Act, establishing full public financing of state Supreme Court elections and making Wisconsin only the third state in the nation to establish such a system.  

Notable Defeats:  Gov. Doyle’s Clean Energy Jobs Act stalled in the Senate on the last day of the legislative session.  The bill would have required that at least 25% of Wisconsin’s energy come from renewable sources by 2025, emissions be reduced to 2005 levels by 2014, and all new buildings constructed after 2029 be “zero-net buildings” that only use energy they generate on-site from renewable sources.  In the process, the bill aimed to create 15,000 new jobs in the state’s growing alternative energy sector by 2025.

  • Minimum Wage:  Legislation (AB 41) to increase and index the minimum wage passed the Senate in 2009 but failed in the House this session.

On the positive side, legislation (AB 696) to deregulate cable television services across the state failed to be taken up by the Senate, despite Senate and Assembly committee approvals secured with one week of each other. 

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
Center for State Innovation
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO
ACLU of Wisconsin
Citizen Action of Wisconsin