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Assembly passes parental rights, firearm tracking ban and universal credentialing bills

by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
January 19, 2024

Wisconsin lawmakers passed three bills along partisan lines on Thursday, including one that would establish a parental bill of rights in Wisconsin, another that would bar credit card companies from identifying merchants as a firearms retailer, and one that would allow professionals licensed in other states to practice in Wisconsin without waiting for the state’s own licensing process.

Revived ‘Parental Bill of Rights’ bill passed

Following nearly two hours of heated debate, lawmakers passed AB 510 — a bill that would establish a list of specific “fundamental rights” for parents related to their child’s religion, medical care, records and education and open the door for parents who claim these rights have been violated to sue school officials — in a 62-35 vote along party lines. 

Republicans insisted that the bill is necessary to allow parents say over their children’s education. Democrats said it would harm teachers and students, especially those who are part of the LGBTQ community.

Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) said during a press conference ahead of the session that the bill is meant to prevent the state from infringing on any of the fundamental rights of parents to direct their children’s upbringing, education and health care. 

“It is challenging enough, especially in today’s educational age, the technology that children have at this point in time,” Wittke said. “This identifies and codifies in the statute what I would say, puts parents at an equal setting with the educational opportunities.” 

The bill would grant parents 16 specified rights including the right to determine the religion of a child; to determine the names and pronouns used for the child while at school; to determine the type of school or educational setting the child attends; the right to to review instructional materials; the right to “timely notice” when a “controversial subject” will be taught or discussed in the child’s classroom and the right to opt out of a class or instructional materials at the child’s school for reasons based on either religion or personal conviction. 

Wittke said that he decided to take charge of the bill after hearing about concerns from parents in his district. 

“There may be a topic around gender identity. There may be a topic around systemic racism. Families want to know when their children are going to be exposed to those topics, so that they can have a reasonable way to work with their students and not have everything just come out of a classroom,” Wittke said. 

Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) accused Republicans of “starting another culture war, attacking kids, putting a chilling effect on school boards and educators who are seeking to create safe places for Wisconsin’s youth,” and “scaring kids that their own history may be deemed controversial.” 

Vining cited recent reporting from the Wisconsin Examiner that the conservative law group Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) was involved in the drafting of the legislation, saying she was disappointed that Wittke hadn’t communicated more with child psychologists or mental health experts who could speak to what kids experience when bills that target them are introduced.

Vining said the bill was poorly written and constructed, pointing out that certain terms in the bill weren’t defined. 

For example, the bill says that parents will maintain the right to timely notice when a controversial subject is discussed. It defines “controversial subject” as “a subject of substantial public debate, disagreement, or disapproval and specifies that the term includes instruction about gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity, structural, systemic, or institutional racism, or content that is not age-appropriate.” 

There is no definition for “substantial public debate,” which Vining said could leave the door open for “controversial subjects” to be created and that could be used to the advantage of groups such as WILL.

“Need a new election topic to divide and conquer your neighbors. Topics to pick from in this bill include gender, identity, sexual orientation, racial identity, structural, systemic institutional racism and more. Stir up disagreement. Breed disapproval then watch, as a right-wing political organization, or three, runs campaigns on your newly created controversial subject,” Vining said. “I’d say try to imagine it but we’ve seen that happen in recent years.” 

Rep. Melissa Ratcliff (D-Cottage Grove), co-chair of the Transgender Parent and Non-Binary Advocacy Caucus, said the bill isn’t about protecting anyone’s rights but is rather about taking students’ rights away.

“AB 510 gives adults the power to determine the names and pronouns used for their child at school. This directly risks undermining the dignity and identity of LGBTQ students, who may not be supported or respected for their chosen names and pronouns, at school, which may be the only safe space for some children,” Ratcliff said. “This bill will open the door to misgendering, dead naming and psychological harm for an already disenfranchised community.”  

The bill comes as Wisconsin’s LGBTQ youth continue to face concerning statistics related to suicide. 

According to an annual report from the Office of Children’s Mental Health, nearly half of all LGBTQ youth in Wisconsin seriously considered killing themselves — a statistic that is higher than the national rate. The report said political divisiveness over LGBTQ issues can especially impact LGBTQ youth and contribute to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality. 

A 2023 national survey conducted by the Trevor Project on the mental health of LGBTQ young people found that one in three LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation. 

The bill is one of several passed this legislative session that would affect transgender youth in Wisconsin. One pair of bills that has passed the Assembly and has received a hearing in the Senate would bar transgender girls from participating on girls sports teams. Another bill, which was recently vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, would have banned gender-affirming medical care for those under 18.

Apart from targeting LGBTQ students and topics, Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said that the bill would likely result in limiting education on issues of race and civil rights history. 

“Under this bill, it would be less likely that our kids would learn about [Martin Luther King Jr.] and other civil rights leaders, and that is a problem,” Neubauer said. “There are real issues in our state, and instead, we’re here passing a bill that allows a single parent to dictate the education of a whole class, that does nothing to address our long-standing racial inequities.”

Lawmakers passed a similar bill in 2022, but Evers vetoed it because he said it aimed to “divide our schools.” 

Rep. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger), who was the Assembly lead on the 2022 bill, said during debate that he drafted the previous version of the bill after the one passed in Florida. 

Gundrum said that Wittke’s version of the bill added language to improve the clarity and to “add more teeth to the bill.” 

The bill would allow parents or guardians who allege they have been denied one of the rights in the bill to bring a civil action against a government body or official. Parents who successfully assert a claim could recover declaratory relief, injunctive relief, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs and up to $10,000 for any other appropriate relief.

“It’s a much-improved bill and I’m definitely in support of that and all the changes that were made…,” Gundrum said. “Parents need their rights back. We need to start protecting them.” 

The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration. It received a hearing on Wednesday in the Senate Education committee and awaits a vote by committee members. 

Ban on firearm merchant category codes

Lawmakers also concurred in SB 466, which would prohibit credit card companies from requiring the use of a merchant category code that identifies a merchant as a firearms retailer, in a 62-35 party-line vote. 

The bill was introduced in reaction to the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) approving a new merchant category code (MCC) last year in order to help detect suspicious firearms and ammunition sales to combat gun violence.

Several Republican-led states, including Texas and Florida, have passed legislation similar to the Wisconsin bill. Some credit card companies like Visa, Mastercard, and Discover have paused work implementing the new merchant category codes due to the state laws. 

The bill would also prohibit the state Department of Justice and other governmental entities from maintaining a list of firearm owners and purchasers based on information from background checks. 

Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said the bill does nothing to address the issue of gun violence in Wisconsin, but would instead serve the interests of the NRA and take away tools from law enforcement.

“It is a bill that seems to cater, not to law-abiding gun owners, but to those who want to skirt the law, to those who want to keep secret the ownership of their gun,” Subeck said. “If you are a law-abiding gun owner for whatever reason you own a gun, whether you are a collector, whether you’re a hunter, whether it’s for personal safety… What’s the big secret if you’re a law abiding gun owner? Law-abiding gun owners should have nothing to fear.” 

Coauthor Rep. Ty Bodden (R-Hilbert) said that there is already an extensive background check and paperwork that gun purchasers need to go through in Wisconsin. He said that the bill is “crucial” to prevent against “the establishment of a concerning precedent where financial institutions become tools for the government for tracking citizens’ purchases of a constitutional right. Unless there is justifiable reason supported by a warrant, citizens should not be subject to government tracking.” 

Universal credentialing bill passed

AB 332, which would expand reciprocal credentialing in Wisconsin to apply to most professions and eliminate a requirement that the applicant reside in this state, passed in a 62-35 in a party line vote.

Reciprocal credentialing is when someone who holds a license, certification, registration or permit from another state can apply for and receive a reciprocal credential in Wisconsin.

An amendment adopted to the bill on Thursday would add a couple of exemptions to the universal credential provision, including credentials for lawyers, certified public accountants and electricians. It also added a requirement that an applicant for a universal credential needs to have held the credential in another jurisdiction for at least three of the five years preceding application.

Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee), who voted against the bill, cautioned that it  could potentially lower Wisconsin’s occupational licensure standards

“Universal licensure says that anybody from any state, if they’re credentialed in that state, can come and practice in this state, but oftentimes, we don’t know who is in charge of making sure that individual was good in their state,” Moore Omokunde said. 

The bill comes as the Department of Safety and Professional Services has been scrutinized in recent years due to significant delays in the processing and approval of professional licenses with many residents waiting months before receiving approval. Troubles with the agency’s response times started before Evers took office.

Moore Omokunde noted that the agency has improved its performance in recent months. According to the DSPS licensing dashboard, new occupational licensing applications are taking an average of 3.7 days to review. 

“We don’t need universal licensure recognition in the state of Wisconsin, especially when we choose not to give the department its dollars,” Moore Omokunde said. “We need to be approving more positions in this department and we need to allow them to do what they need to do with the money that they get for the state of Wisconsin.”

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly rejected requests from the agency to allow for additional employees. 

Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) said that there are still a number of occupations that can take months to get reviewed.

“This is about saying we trust that other states are doing their due diligence — other states like Minnesota and Tennessee and Texas and California,” Sortwell said. “You can’t tell me that California is a less regulated state in general. They’re pretty darn regulated… This is just common sense. Let’s let the people get to work as quickly as possible and let’s pass the bill.”

Strip search bill passes with bipartisan support

In a voice vote, representatives also concurred in SB 111, which would expand the definition of “strip search” in current state law to include when someone is “naked or underwear-clad.”

Under current state law, it’s a Class B misdemeanor for a school district official or employee to “strip search” a student when their private areas are exposed.

The bill was introduced in reaction to an incident in 2022 when a Suring School District employee in search of vaping devices allegedly ordered six teenage girls to undress down to their underwear. The students’ parents and law enforcement were not informed or present at the time of the strip search.

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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