2008 Session Roundups: Wisconsin

The biggest news coming out of Wisconsin this year may be the retirement of the Green Bay Packers' beloved quarterback, Brett Favre, but lawmakers were largely able to keep to the task at hand and pass a budget before the end of the shortened 2008 session.  However, they may find themselves back in Madison to deal with a worsening budget situation.  Despite leaving some key issues on the table due to partisan divisions, lawmakers laid a solid foundation for future success in 2009.

Budget:  Approving a $1 increase in the cigarette tax, the legislature increased state spending by $763.3 million dollars, down from the $1.5 billion included in Gov. Doyle's original plan.  BadgerCare Plus, the state's plan to provide free or affordable health care to children throughout Wisconsin, will be expanded in January 2009 to include childless adults.   

Incremental Successes included:

  • Access to Emergency Contraception - Bucking recent trends that sought to limit access to reproductive services, the Governor and lawmakers enacted Act 102, which requires hospitals to provide emergency contraception to sexual assault survivors.
  • Fire-Safe Cigarettes - Assuming Governor Doyle adds his signature to AB 717, Wisconsin will join 22 other states in requiring that all cigarettes be fire-safe by automatically extinguishing when they are not being smoked.
  • Reining in Notaries Who Prey on Immigrants - Notaries public in Mexico and Latin American countries have legal training and dispense legal advice, while in the US they are only authorized to administer oaths and witness signatures. AB 468 imposes stiff penalties on notaries who scam immigrants by charging them for legal advice.

Missed Opportunities and Partisan Strife:  The legislature tried but failed to pass a ban on text messaging while driving, as well as a statewide smoking ban, which the US Surgeon General reports would have no negative impact on local economies and in many cases results in economic growth.  Indicating the partisan differences between the Republican-led Assembly and the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Assembly passed a measure making English the official language of Wisconsin and an amendment to the constitution designed to preempt a Senate proposal guaranteeing health care to all residents.  Both measures were not even taken up by the Senate.

A Foundation for 2009:  In the last few days of the legislative session, State Sen. Jon Erpenbach re-introduced his groundbreaking health care reform proposal, Healthy Wisconsin.  Healthy Wisconsin stands out from other state initiatives by guaranteeing comprehensive health care coverage to all residents and establishing a uniform, affordable funding mechanism that is proportional to employers' and families' ability to pay.  Healthy Wisconsin would save the state $14 billion over ten years.  A recent analysis by Citizen Action of Wisconsin shows that the average family could save 40% to 62% of what they currently spend on health care under Healthy Wisconsin - a savings of $1,320 to $4,180 per year. 

Putting Healthy Wisconsin back on the table gives health care reform advocates a plan to run on during the November elections, a strategy that helped Democrats takeover the State Senate in 2006.