State Capitol dome interior
The interior of the state Capitol dome in Madison. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

COVID aid and renter relief are also among the areas affected by an obscure but powerful legislative panel.

In the old “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon, Bill sings about how he’s “just a bill” until he becomes a law. But a bill is still “just” a bill if the rules that put the new law into practice are undermined by the Legislature, as evidenced on several topics this week.

Legislative Republicans put forward proposals that would allow licensed therapists to continue the controversial practice of LGBTQ conversion therapy, discriminate against potential patients on the basis of gender identity and race, bar the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from enforcing a law passed last year to prevent industrial chemicals from entering waterways, and restrict COVID-19 aid for public employees and renters. But instead of legislating on the issues themselves, the Republicans would implement those policies through the rulemaking process.

The bills were put forward by an obscure but powerful panel known as the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) that oversees rulemaking after a bill is passed. In December, JCRAR held a hearing where it killed the rules put forward by the DNR to enforce the PFAS law passed last year, effectively making the law unenforceable. PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, do not break down easily and are linked to causing cancer and other health problems.

Another example of this tactic a bill that takes advantage of the fact that the law does not expressly state whether conversion therapy and the discrimination that accompanies it is the law of the land. The bill would ban allowing the  Marriage and Family Therapy, Professional Counseling, and Social Work Examining Board, which oversees the licensing of therapists, counselors and social workers, from making any rules that would constitute the behaviors surrounding conversion therapy as unprofessional and worthy of reprimand.

Senate Democrats said that if Republicans wanted to legislate on conversion therapy or reverse the PFAS law, they should do so through the legislative process, which would require public hearings and the governor’s signature on a bill. 

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who chairs JCRAR, argued the committee was right to shelve the PFAS rules because he believes the DNR’s rules went beyond the parameters of the law. Fellow Republican Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay, one of the authors of the original bill, said the rules did fit within the scope of the law. Cowles crossed party lines to vote against the new bill, saying he had never been consulted by Nass or other JCRAR members before they drafted the bill that would essentially gut his law. 

Earlier: DNR Says It Would Cost $750,000 to Test All Remaining Municipal Water Systems for PFAS

During committee discussion of the conversion therapy bill, Senate Democrats equated conversion therapy to torture. Organizations representing psychologists, counselors and social workers in Wisconsin have all filed in opposition to the bill.

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) pointed to research that found the suicide rate for LGBTQ youth who had been forced to undergo conversion therapy doubled. He also pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans, who have been clamoring to reopen schools for the sake of children’s well-being, endorsing a practice that has been widely discredited and declared harmful by several medical and mental health organizations.  

“If you give a damn about the increase in suicide in depression in children, you would work with us to make sure this conversion therapy, which I call torture, is ended,” Larson said.

One of the two COVID-19-related rule-making bills would bar the Department of Administration’s personnel division from granting paid COVID-19-related administrative leave for limited term state employees (anyone who works less than 1,039 hours per year) during the pandemic. The other would bar the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection from enacting an emergency rule that says landlords cannot charge tenants fees for late rent.

Landlords have a lot of sway with Wisconsin Republicans, since Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and other representatives and senators are landlords themselves. The two COVID-19 bills are also part of a general opposition among Republicans to some forms of COVID-19 relief, particularly for public employees and renters.

Both the Assembly and Senate sent the JCRAR bills to the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform for further consideration.