(Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
(Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Flurry of bills as 2020’s final floor session runs past midnight

Barring any new special sessions, Republican Assembly leadership has officially clocked out for 2020 and won’t be back on the floor passing legislation in regular session until next January. The final floor session began Thursday and went into early Friday in order to cobble together a few final bills that may or may not be taken up by the Senate during its final session in March.

The last-minute bills included a compromise on letting municipalities allow bars to stay open in 14 southeastern Wisconsin counties until 4 a.m. during July’s Democratic National Convention, a bill raising to 21 the minimum age to buy tobacco and vaping products, and a watered down bill addressing areas contaminated by “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. 

The bill to let bars stay open until 4 a.m., AB869, proved to be divisive and is not guaranteed to pass the Senate. While organizations such as the Tavern League of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus supported the measure, others including the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards oppose it.

Should AB869 ultimately become law, individual municipalities in the 14 southeastern Wisconsin counties would need to pass resolutions authorizing their local bars to remain open. The counties allowed through the bill are: Kenosha, Racine, Walworth, Rock, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Jefferson, Dane, Ozaukee, Washington, Dodge, Columbia, Sheboygan and Fond du Lac. An amendment adopted Thursday implemented the county limit.

But to Tom Wenzel, vice president of the Washington County Tavern League and owner of Hank’s Restaurant and Drinkery in downtown Hartford, the bill is an empty gesture. He said the hotels near him are simply not booking many rooms yet for the DNC.

“It’s not going to impact Washington County whatsoever,” Wenzel said, adding that staying open until 4 a.m. “would be ludicrous.” And because the bill leaves it up to individual municipalities to allow bars to stay open, he said he is doubtful Hartford’s City Council would let it happen.

Meanwhile, AB422, which raises the minimum age to 21 to buy tobacco and vaping products, received sweeping bipartisan support. Although Congress raised the federal minimum purchasing age to 21 in December, state and local police are unable to enforce it until legislatures act. In January, the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association urged state lawmakers to adopt AB422 and ensure it has a “swift advancement through the legislative process.”

The heightened attention to young people vaping comes amid a vaping-related sickness outbreak that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, has killed 64 people and hospitalized another 2,758. The outbreak peaked in September and has since largely calmed down.

The PFAS bill was put together during the session and passed after midnight. Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who had been working to address PFAS pollution in his district, tweeted Friday afternoon that he was happy a bill passed, but acknowledged it did not go as far as his original proposal. Nygren worked with state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, to introduce the measure.

“It is not everything I wanted and I believe we should have done more to respond to PFAS contamination in Marinette and Peshtigo,” Nygren wrote. 

Nygren’s original bill would have established several grant programs, required the state Department of Natural Resources to establish various controls and tests for PFAS, and for the DNR to provide free blood testing to people living in contaminated areas. What passed only requires some studies by Jan. 1, 2021, and establishes testing protocols.

Just after midnight Friday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, acknowledged on the floor that the new bill doesn’t go far enough. 

“They (Nygren and Hansen) came up with a bill that probably would do more — I know it would do more — than the bill we’re taking up today,” Vos said. However, he continued, the bill passed “is a huge step forward in a very short amount of time.”

Earlier in the day, Assembly Republicans approved their plan to use $250 million of a surprise budget surplus to go toward a tax cut rather than put it toward schools, as Gov. Tony Evers proposed. Vos has threatened to launch an override attempt if Evers vetoes the tax cut.

Evers’ press team said the governor will “be as open to Republicans’ tax bill as Republicans have been about passing his education plan.”