The state Senate moved Tuesday to place on the April ballot two initiatives: a constitutional amendment to overhaul bail policies; and an advisory referendum on whether childless, able-bodied adults should have to seek work to qualify for public assistance.
Republicans hope both could help drive conservative turnout this spring with control of the state Supreme Court up for grabs.
Meanwhile, GOP Senate leaders shut down a Dem attempt to add an advisory referendum on whether the state’s 1849 abortion ban should be overturned.
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, chided Republicans for seeking to advance an advisory referendum on welfare when it’s already state law that childless, able-bodied adults must seek work to qualify for public assistance. Dem Gov. Tony Evers suspended the work search requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Republicans reinstated it in spring 2021.
Agard said Republicans were afraid to add the abortion referendum because they know what the outcome would be.
“You all know if people are asked clearly if they want to restore abortion rights in Wisconsin, they will respond with a resounding ‘Hell yes,’” she said.
Dems introduced the abortion referendum as a substitute amendment to the one Republicans proposed. Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, ruled the Dem proposal wasn’t related to the original resolution and therefore wasn’t properly before the Senate.
The chamber then voted 21-11 along party lines to uphold the ruling of the chair.
Meanwhile, the bail amendment was approved 23-9 with Dems Brad Pfaff, of Onalaska, and Bob Wirch, of Pleasant Prairie, joining all Republicans in favor.
The advisory referendum on childless, able-bodied adults was approved 22-10 along party lines. Pfaff again joined Republicans in backing the referendum.
Republicans face a Jan. 24 deadline to have the advisory referendum and the constitutional amendment clear both houses of the Legislature to be on the April 4 ballot. The Assembly is scheduled to take up both on Thursday.
GOP Sen. Van Wanggaard, of Racine, shot down the suggestion the bail amendment was driven by politics or by the Waukesha Christmas parade tragedy in 2021.
Wanggaard said he first began working on the proposal seven years ago to fix a broken bail system.
The amendment would expand what factors judges can consider when setting cash bail for violent offenders. Under current law, courts can impose release conditions to protect the community from “serious bodily harm,” and judges can only take into account the likelihood the defendant will appear in court when setting bail.
“It’s about one thing: fixing Wisconsin’s broken bail system. Anyone taking an honest look at Wisconsin’s bail system knows that it’s broken and needs to be fixed,” Wanggaard said.
Ahead of the floor debate, Dems unveiled the abortion advisory referendum with Evers accusing Republicans of seeking to boost conservative turnout this spring through the question on work requirements.
“It’s a ridiculous proposition, frankly,” Evers said. “I think it will work against them. When people see that the only thing they’re doing here is to try to influence the Supreme Court race, I think that’s going to irritate some folks.”
Evers said even if Wisconsinites were to oppose requiring people to look for work to receive public assistance, Republicans wouldn’t change the law.
“Are the Republicans actually going to come back into session and say, ‘We made a mistake, we’re going to do away with those laws’? It’s absolutely insanity,” the guv said.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the referendum stemmed from the persistent challenges Wisconsin employers face in finding workers.
He said Evers has sought to end the work requirement in the last two budgets and noted there is currently no such requirement for able-bodied, childless adults to qualify for Medical Assistance. LeMahieu said Republicans have looked at that in the past and could again.
Federal law currently doesn’t allow work requirements to qualify for the program. The Trump administration approved waivers for some states to impose such a requirement. But several were struck down by the courts, and the Biden administration has withdrawn approval for them.
“It’s so important to show the support from Wisconsin voters that if you’re going to receive welfare benefits that you need to apply for work, and able-bodied adults should be working,” he said.