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Wisconsin Assembly’s final floor session: PFAS, higher education and constitutional amendments

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said at a press conference ahead of the last day that lawmakers have had an incredibly productive legislative session. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
February 23, 2024

The Wisconsin Assembly met on Thursday for its last day on the floor during the two-year legislative session, advancing proposals that would combat PFAS; fund higher education priorities; target diversity, equity and inclusion on campuses and amend the state Constitution.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said at a press conference ahead of the last day  that lawmakers have had an incredibly productive legislative session. 

“We have passed a budget. We increased funding for our local communities. We expanded school choice. We passed multiple tax cuts and a lot of other good legislation along the way,” Vos said. 

Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) said there was less than a 1% chance that representatives will meet again after adjourning. 

PFAS bill likely dead

A bill that would allow $125 million in funding to be used to combat polyfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS — passed the Assembly, setting it up to go to Gov. Tony Evers. But he has indicated that he won’t sign it

The bill would create a grant program under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which would be funded by the money that was included in the state budget and would provide funds to people whose properties are contaminated by PFAS.

The main reason for the rift between Republican lawmakers and Evers over the bill is a provision that authors of the bill say would protect “innocent landowners.” 

The aim of the provision is to protect innocent landowners from being penalized by the DNR because a nearby plume of contamination can migrate onto their property, yet Democrats and conservation groups have said that the provision is so broad that it would also apply to polluters and would hinder the DNR from being able to hold landowners, who may not actually be innocent, accountable. 

“When it came down to getting money out the door versus hindering the DNR, I was told by my [Republican] colleagues, they would rather just take a veto because they didn’t want to lose out on the opportunity to undermine the DNR’s ability to protect our plume drinking water,” Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). “That’s deeply disappointing.”

Republican lawmakers urged Evers to sign the bill.

Rep. Jeff Mursau said that the provision was added to ensure that farmers and others, who have PFAS spread but have no knowledge of it, are not held liable. 

“The whole crux of this whole bill is trying to get stuff cleaned up without… making somebody liable that had nothing to do with it, so I’m just hopeful that we can see beyond some of these other things,” Musau said at a press conference ahead of the floor session.

Mursau noted, when asked what would happen to the funding if the bill were vetoed, that there has been a request by the Evers administration to the Joint Finance Committee, asking lawmakers to release the money. 

“We’ll see where that ends up going,” Mursau said. 

Proposals to change state Constitution advance 

Two constitutional amendments passed the Assembly, including one that will likely be placed on ballots this year. 

The first constitutional amendment proposal would give the state Legislature additional oversight over the appropriation of federal funds. Lawmakers concurred in the proposal in a voice vote, and adopted an amendment that would place the question on the August ballot, rather than the November ballot. It already passed the Senate, but the amended version will need to be approved again. 

AJR-006 would ask voters two questions:

Should the Constitution be amended to “provide that the Legislature may not delegate its sole power to determine how moneys shall be appropriated?”Should the Constitution be amended “to prohibit the governor from allocating any federal moneys the governor accepts on behalf of the state without the approval of the Legislature by joint resolution or as provided by legislative rule?”

Another constitutional amendment that would exempt houses of worship from emergency orders closing public buildings concurred in a 63-33 vote. It passed the Senate in November. This is the proposal’s first consideration, meaning it will need to be passed in the next legislative session before it could go to voters for consideration.

Higher education bills advance

Lawmakers approved several bills related to the state’s public universities and technical colleges.

Some of the bills were part of a deal that the UW System and Republican lawmakers came to on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and funding. 

One bill, which provides funding for a Minnesota-Wisconsin student tuition reciprocity agreement, was concurred in 97-0. Another bill that provides about $423 million in funding for several infrastructure projects at the UW-Madison and other UW System campuses was concurred in 95-2 with Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) voting against. 

The bills now go to Evers, who recently signed a measure that guarantees admission to the state’s public universities to students ranked in the top 5% and 10% of their school. 

Another bill was not part of the deal, but is the result of lawmakers’ ongoing efforts to target DEI. 

“Many of you may remember that we had a bit of a standoff between our caucus and [the] UW System when it came to DEI. Well this bill would actually fix that situation because it would eliminate DEI from our campuses,” Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie) said at a press conference. 

The bill, which passed in a voice vote, would bar UW System institutions and technical colleges from requesting that students, student groups or faculty pledge “allegiance to” or make “a statement of support of or opposition to any political ideology or movement” as a condition for admission, recognition, funding, hiring and more. The bill specifically prohibits “a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion.” 

It would also allow a person that alleges the provisions in the bill were violated to bring civil action against an institution. Plaintiffs would be able to seek injunctive relief, which could include admission as a student, rehiring or promotion to tenure, and damages in court and would be entitled to attorney fees if the case were successful. 

Lawmakers also passed a bill that would require higher education institutions that receive public funding to waive an immunization requirement for a student or prospective student if they object to the requirement because of health, religious or personal conviction reasons. It passed in a voice vote.

Office of School Safety funding passed 

A bill to use fees from concealed carry licenses to funding for the Department of Justice’s Office of School Safety from January 2025 through September 2025 passed 95-2. Reps. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) and Darrin Madison (D-Milwaukee) voted against the bill. It is now in the Senate, which has had a public hearing after which the Senate version of the bill was recommended for passage by a Senate committee. 

“I’m very honored to keep this funding going for the office of school safety,” Rep. Todd Novak said.

Novak added that the funding is a short term fix and would keep the office funded until the next budget cycle. He said he would then work with the budget committee to try to get funding to continue the office.

Refugee resettlement

Lawmakers also concurred in a bill that would require every local government within a 100-mile radius to be notified of a refugee being resettled and require each local government to designate a person to consult with the federal government or a private nonprofit voluntary agency on the resettlement. It was introduced following news that a resettlement agency planned to resettle 75 refugees in Eau Claire. The bill was approved in a 62-35 vote with Democrats against. 

Rep. Karen Hurd, (R-Fall Creek), said that the bill “has nothing to do with refugees, good, bad or indifferent. It just has to do with let[ting] us have a seat at the table.” 

Rep. Samba Baldeh (D-Madison) said that lawmakers were looking to solve two problems that don’t exist. 

“The first problem is fear of the other, fear of people who are described as refugees… There’s no issue to solve here…These people are patriotic people. These people will serve this country. These people will serve the state of Wisconsin — just like I have been doing for the past two decades,” Baldeh said. “The second problem that this bill is trying to help that also does not exist is the myth that Washington, D.C. bureaucracy is flooding states with aliens, with refugees.”

Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) called the bill a joke and chastised lawmakers for trying to insert themselves into federal policy. 

“There are already strong parameters about the security of who can achieve refugee status. The checks and balances are numerous,” Emerson said. 

“Just so no one is confused, the refugees that we’re talking about, the refugees that have already been resettled in Wisconsin, the refugees that are waiting in camps around this world to come to the United States and other countries have been to hell and back,” Emerson added.

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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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