Wisconsin becomes first to block what has sailed through 30 other states

On Feb. 11, hours before Assembly Republicans would be voting on a new and heavily criticized version of a bill to prevent another sexual assault rape kit backlog –with added components including immigration and school choice aspects, Speaker Robin Vos held a press conference to field questions.

Days prior, his party had come under criticism as Assembly Bill 214, the original rape kit reform bill, continued to languish in the Assembly Health Committee. It had the support of nurses, law enforcement, sexual assault survivors, advocates, and current and former state atttorneys general from both parties, 56 bipartisan cosponsors in the Assembly and had unanimously passed the Senate. 

All the Assembly had to do was vote on it and Gov. Tony Evers would have signed it into law. 

Instead, a new version, Assembly Bill 844 with traditionally partisan deal breakers included, was quickly introduced, given a public hearing and was up for a floor vote later that evening. It was moving faster in a week than the bill with the support of those it was designed to help – the survivors of rape and sexual assault – had moved in nine months.

At the press conference, Vos, R-Rochester, was asked if the new version of the bill was designed to fail. He was asked why the controversial “add-ons” could not be taken up in separate bills to guarantee the original bill’s passage. And he was repeatedly asked if he would be to blame if the original bill supported by survivors failed to pass this session. 

Vos said the bill was not designed to fail, that the add-ons made the bill better and that he should not be blamed if the bill fails to pass. Hours after the press briefing, the amended bill passed the Assembly

“The only ones who are making this into a partisan issue are my Democratic colleagues who are choosing to take the things that we put in, which I think are better and make the bill have a better chance of making it through both houses and to the governor, and are objecting to it just because of their own personal ideology,” Vos told reporters. 

Now, with the Senate’s top Republican signaling late last week the Assembly version has no chance of passing his house, those who worked on AB 214 are not mincing words when it comes to blaming Vos for its failure to pass. 

“Let’s not let him pretend he doesn’t know what he is doing,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation. “School choice is always a partisan issue. He knows what he’s doing. Let’s all be clear about that.”

The Speaker’s office did not respond to a request for further comment.

In her role with the Joyful Heart Foundation, Knecht has assisted 30 other states and Washington, D.C., in passing the same bill the coalition of advocates and law enforcement supported in Wisconsin. Authorities first became aware two decades ago of the lack of protocol that resulted in rape kits sitting on shelves in hospitals and in police departments in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.

The backlog in Wisconsin totaled more than 6,000 kits. It took federal grant money and shipping the kits to out-of-state labs for Wisconsin’s kits to be tested and the backlog to dwindle down. 

“By killing the bill you are giving rapists a free pass for another year,” Knecht said. “It is unfathomable. I hope Speaker Vos understands the stakes are very high.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, confirmed Thursday his house would not be voting on the version passed by the Assembly. 

“I asked the Speaker to go back and reconsider the bill as passed by the Senate,” Fitzgerald said. “He felt strongly that those provisions needed to be added. I just don’t have the support for taking up the bill with those amendments in it. I can tell you the Senate will not take that bill up.”

The amendments Fitzgerald is referencing are two highly partisan topics, school choice and immigration. 

One provision would allow parents of a school-age child who is raped or sexually assaulted to automatically qualify for a voucher to a private school if they go to school with their alleged attacker. 

Another would allow local police departments to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when someone suspected of being in the country illegally is accused –but not yet convicted or acquitted– of rape or sexual assault. 

Both bills established timelines for nurses who collect physical evidence to contact law enforcement, who then are given a certain amount of time to pick up the evidence contained in the sexual assault kit and send it to a crime lab. 

The failure of the state to have such timelines allows kits to go untested, meaning some perpetrators continue to remain free, potentially committing additional crimes, while evidence that could charge them for a crime goes untested.  

Chairing the Assembly Health Committee, which ultimately became a legislative graveyard for the original bipartisan bill, is Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin. He claimed no bill was ever needed because the last backlog was fixed without new legislation.  

Vos told reporters in the Feb. 11 press conference the amendments were added because he and Assembly Republicans prefer to do things “in a more comprehensive way.” The bill also included a sexual survivors’ bill of rights.

“I think the only ones who are choosing to make it partisan are the very people who began this process in a partisan way by saying if it is any bill but this bill (AB 214) it will be a partisan answer,” Vos said. “Well, it’s not that bill. We’ve improved it. That’s why the bill should pass as it is.” 

Erin Thornley Parisi, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of Dane County, whose non-profit was involved in crafting AB 214, said “for Speaker Vos to chose to ignore the expertise of those who work with victims of sexual assault everyday is beyond disappointing.

“There is nothing I have ever seen to show that Robin Vos has that level of expertise,” Thornley Parisi said. “To blame us, the experts, for the demise of this bill and to say that we are the ones who are making it partisan is gaslighting. He threw victims of sexual assault under the bus and I really wish I knew why.”

Jacqueline Jaske was home with her son when a man broke into her home nearly 26 years ago. With a knife to her throat, she was sexually assaulted. She said “back then, everyone brushed those kinds of incidents under the rug.” 

Working with the state Department of Justice to try and get AB 214 passed into law gave her a voice, she said. She said the experience “certainly gave me an education on politics,” adding “I had no idea an issue like this could become a battle of egos.” 

“There is not a doubt in my mind that because this is an election year, they don’t want a win for Democrats,” said Jaske, who said she is a Republican. “I was embarrassed by their actions. I think it shows a complete lack of caring for other human beings.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul continued the work started by his two Republican predecessors. A Democrat, Kaul said “there’s one reason that sexual assault kit reform legislation apparently isn’t going to pass in this session: Assembly Republicans have chosen to block it.”

“The State Senate came together in a bipartisan fashion to pass legislation supported by advocates for survivors, nurses, and law enforcement that can help prevent a future backlog of untested sexual assault kits,” Kaul said. “But rather than passing that important bipartisan legislation, Assembly Republicans have chosen to prioritize political point counting over justice for survivors and public safety.”

Knecht, with Joyful Heart Foundation, said those who worked to craft AB 214 will be back next year and “hopefully something will shift.”

“The people of Wisconsin deserve better,” she said. “They should be calling their legislators and telling them how they feel about this.”