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Senate passes public safety bills, confirms Evers’ nominations and retains conversion therapy


Senate passes public safety bills, confirms Evers’ nominations and retains conversion therapy

Mar 23, 2023 | 8:00 am ET
By Baylor Spears
Senate passes public safety bills, confirms Evers’ nominations and retains conversion therapy
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) spoke in favor of public safety bills at Senate Democrats' press conference held before the Wednesday floor session. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

The Wisconsin Senate passed public safety bills that would increase penalties for delivering drugs that lead to death and carjacking, confirmed Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees, called on Evers to hold a special election for secretary of state and voted to retain the practice of conversion therapy during a Wednesday floor session.

Public safety bills pass with bipartisan support 

Lawmakers considered several public safety bills including one that would increase penalties for delivering controlled substances that later result in a death and another that would do the same for carjacking. 

The Senate passed SB 101 in a 28-3 vote with Sens. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Kelda Roys (D-Madison) voting against. The bill changes a reckless homicide that is the result of delivering fatal drugs from a Class C to a Class B felony and raises the penalty from a maximum of 40 years in prison to a maximum of 60 years. Under current law, the accused could also be fined up to $100,000. 

“This is about dealing specifically with the enforcement aspect of the people who are bringing poison into our state,” Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), the bill’s author, said during floor debate. “This will make a difference because it’s going to help our law enforcement and our prosecutorial attorneys.” 

Democrats were divided on the bill with some lawmakers saying the bill would help take people who are selling fentanyl-laced drugs off the street, while others said it would not address the problem in a meaningful way.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said she would be supporting the bill because she knows the impacts of addiction on people, having experienced it first hand with her brother, who she lost to addiction a couple of years ago. 

“The one thing that I want more than anything is for the person who sold my brother his drugs to be caught, to be punished,” Johnson said. “It may not stop people from using, but the one thing that it will do is to stop that individual from taking another life for the duration of the time that he is locked up.” 

“They’re lacing fentanyl in everything because it makes the drug more potent, guaranteeing that people come back and buy more of it,” Johnson continued. “They have no regard for life whatsoever, and if this bill can take one of those individuals off the street, then it’s worth its weight in gold.” 

Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison), who voted in favor of the bill, said during a press conference that her brother died from an overdose, but that while there need to be more comprehensive approaches taken, it’s a complicated bill. 

Taylor, who voted against the bill, said more imprisonment does not reduce drug problems and that if the Legislature wants to address the opioid crisis then it should do more to invest in services to support people. She said the bill also won’t target the individuals whom supporters of the bill say it will penalize. 

“This is not going to get the people that are really selling drugs,” Taylor said. “This is going to get the user and the friend.”

Larson said the increased jail penalty could also have the negative impact of deterring people from calling 911 in the case of an emergency, which actually increases the risk of death when someone overdoses. 

Another public safety bill, SB 76, passed 23-8 with Sens. Tim Carpenter (D – Milwaukee), Robert Wirch (D-Somers) and Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) joining Republicans in favor. The bill would redefine the crime of intentionally taking a vehicle without the consent of the owner under the name ‘carjacking.’ Similar to the opioid bill, it would increase penalties by changing the crime from a Class C to a Class B felony and allowing for a maximum sentence of 60 years. 

Some Democrats criticized the bill saying that simply increasing existing penalties for the crimes would not be an effective way to prevent carjacking.

Larson said the Legislature was doing “the least” it could and the proposed legislation is “just moving a letter on a page.” He said this legislation is just an opportunity for lawmakers to be able to claim that they’re tough on crime. 

“That is somehow supposed to get people to stop carjacking,” Larson said. “I hope that they’re all watching WisconsinEye right now and that they’re studying their books about the statutes and the criminal penalties related to carjacking.”

“I would argue what we should actually do is make sure we are creating a certainty of a consequence, instead of just saying ‘Well let’s make something illegal, super illegal’ and hope that that somehow solves the problem,” Larson said. 

Wanggard said it’s important to specifically identify what carjacking is, especially as there has been an increase in the number of these crimes happening in Wisconsin. 

“This defines the crime of carjacking,” Wanggard said. “It makes [it] very clear. If you do a carjacking, you do the crime, you’re going to do the time.”

The Senate also passed SB 92, a reckless driving bill, 30-1 that would allow municipalities to impound vehicles used in reckless driving offenses if the person cited fails to pay the fine. Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) was the only lawmaker to vote against. Evers is expected to sign the reckless driving bill, according to TMJ4

Lawmakers passed another bill, SB 75, along partisan lines, 20-11, that would clarify the definition of “violent crime.” The bill, which includes over 100 crimes, comes in anticipation of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow judges to consider the “totality of the circumstances” in cases where the defendant is accused of a “violent crime.” 

Evers appointees confirmed

Lawmakers unanimously confirmed three of Gov. Tony Evers’ nominees to cabinet-level positions leading state agencies. The confirmations signal a shift in the relationship between the Legislature and Evers as Senate Republicans refused to confirm Evers’ appointees during his first term.  

Nathan Houdek, first appointed to the position in January 2022, will continue to serve as Commissioner of Insurance. Missy Hughes, first appointed in September 2019, will continue to serve as Secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and Anne Sayers, first appointed in December 2020, will serve as Secretary of the Department of Tourism. 

Lawmakers also unanimously confirmed 21 of Evers’ appointees to various state boards.

Despite Wednesday’s confirmations, there are still 183 of Evers’ appointments, including 14 department heads, that remain unconfirmed by the Senate, said Sen. Chris Larson in a statement. He criticized Republicans for the number of Evers’ appointees that haven’t been confirmed.

“There was some hope that this deliberate campaign of obstruction would end once Evers won his second term as Governor. Some Republicans, including Majority Leader LeMahieu, even suggested that all cabinet secretaries would be given an up or down vote,” Larson said. “Sadly, as we near the end of the third month of Evers’ fifth year in office, it seems Governor Evers may never see a full, Senate-confirmed cabinet, and our state is worse off for it.”

Republicans call for secretary of state special election

The Senate voted 20-11 along party lines to adopt a resolution that calls on Gov. Tony Evers to call a special election for the seat of secretary of state. Evers recently appointed Sarah Godlewski, former state treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate, to fill the seat of Doug La Follette, who announced his retirement last week, less than three months into his 12th term. 

Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Ooostburg) said Evers should call a special election since there are more than three years left in the term. He said that leaves plenty of time for the people of Wisconsin to have the opportunity to vote on who they want to replace La Follette.  

“The Legislature is simply calling on the governor to exercise his authority to allow the people of Wisconsin to elect their secretary of state,” LeMahieu said during floor debate. “The people of Wisconsin didn’t vote for Sarah Godlewski.” 

Evers is not required by law to hold a special election to fill the vacant seat. 

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said Republicans were just upset that their candidate lost the election and that governors have the power to make appointments, which is what Evers did in the case of the secretary of state vacancy. 

Senate retains conversion therapy despite Democrats’ objections

The Senate also took the last step on Wednesday to uphold the discredited practice of conversion therapy — or attempting to convince LGBTQ people to change their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  

Lawmakers voted along party lines, 20-11, to send a rule change back to the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR), where it will likely stay for the remainder of the session in order to avoid a potential veto by Evers.

The rule, which barred licensed counselors, therapists and social workers from the practice, was originally implemented by the Marriage and Family Therapy, Professional Counseling, and Social Work Examining Board. The Legislature has suspended that ban and has now effectively reinstated conversion therapy. 

Assembly Republicans referred the companion bill to the Assembly Family Law committee last week

Democrats objected to the action, saying that Republicans needed to stop hiding behind the rule-making process and address the issue head on, especially because of the harm conversion therapy can cause. 

Agard said the policy is driving people from Wisconsin, and that she is “pleading” with lawmakers to “stop hiding behind these cumbersome rule making procedures and do what is right.” 

Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), who is gay, said the practice is harmful to LGBT people, and that with already high rates of suicide and depression they should being doing everything they can to support people. He said people should know that if they’re going to a licensed therapist, they’re held to standards that don’t allow the practice. 

“I was fortunate to be raised in a supportive environment where I could figure out my sexual orientation. No one ever tried to send me to conversion therapy for being gay, but not every lesbian, bisexual or trans kid is so lucky,” Sprietzer said. “And [there are] even parents who accidentally send their kid to a therapist, who instead of helping them, tries to convince them to stop being themselves… We must not send this bill back to committee.” 

“This is a movie that we’ve seen before,” said Larson, a member of the JCRAR. He said the administrative rules committee is never going to take the bill up.