Dec. 16, 2014 – Fresh from convincing fall election wins, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leadership have started to hint at the policy items they plan to push in the 2015-16 state legislative session. With sizable majorities in the Senate and Assembly, Gov. Walker and Republicans will have considerable control over the legislative agenda. The governor has indicated his desire to continue to focus on job growth, economic development and cutting and reforming taxes.
Assembly Republicans unveiled most of their planned agenda items before the election calling it their “Forward Agenda.” Senate Republicans have not released any planned agenda items, but leaders did make news last week when they indicated a plan to introduce right to work legislation.
Legislative Leadership Changes
Many of the legislative leaders will return to their posts in 2015-16. Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) returns as the speaker of the Assembly and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) will continue to serve as the majority leader in the Senate. The Joint Finance Committee leadership will also stay the same, with Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) returning as co-chairs. Assembly Republicans did elect a new majority leader, Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna). The Senate also has a new president, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin).
Focus on Court Funding and Returning 17-Year-Olds to Juvenile Court
The State Bar of Wisconsin’s lobbying focus will be on a number of issues, but court funding will continue to dominate the early session advocacy efforts. Last session, the court system’s budget received the largest cut ever, with the Legislature approving a $11.8 million lapse that must be returned to the state’s general operations fund. The judicial system receives .85 percent of every penny of state tax dollars. The state court system and the State Bar would like to increase that contribution so that it equals a penny or a “Penny for Justice.”
Passing the Second Chance Bill will also be a priority for this session. The Second Chance Bill would return first-time, nonviolent 17-year-old offenders to the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. The legislation received bipartisan support last session and the State Bar is encouraging the governor to include the initiative in his next biennial budget.
Republicans to Focus on Court Reforms
Last session, Republicans passed the first consideration of a constitutional amendment that would change how the chief justice is selected. Currently, the chief is determined by longevity of service. The legislation passed last session would change that process and would determine the selection by a vote of justices. In order for the change to take place, the Legislature would need to pass the proposed amendment for a second time and then a public referendum would take place, possibly as early as the spring 2015 election.
Legislators have indicated a desire to place into statute a mandatory retirement age for judges. Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) plans to introduce the change next session, but the proposal currently lacks details. The constitution allows for the Legislature to set a mandatory retirement age in statute as long as the retirement age is not below 70 years. However, the Legislature has operated without the age restriction since 1977.
The State Bar will continue to push its own proposal, which would create a single, 16-year term for justices. The Board of Governors overwhelming supported the constitutional amendment, which will allow justices to focus their time on the court and the law without concerns for reelection. The Judicial Election Steering Committee is currently tasked with guiding the State Bar through the political process of getting a bill drafted and passed.
Cale Battles is a government relations coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached at org cbattles wisbar wisbar cbattles org, or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
Practice Sections to be Deeply Involved in Multiple Legislative Proposals
The lobbying sections at the State Bar will introduce a number of proactive legislative positions during the upcoming legislative cycle. A number of these projects have been studied and worked on by the sections for some time.
The Business Law section has a number of legislative proposals that will be introduced this spring. The section has been working on codifying two proposed uniform laws on Limited Liability Companies and the Revised Business Partnership Act. Both of these acts will foster uniformity with other states and update current laws to assist in creating and growing current Wisconsin businesses.
The Elder Law and Children in the Law sections continue to work on guardianship reform. The sections have worked together to remove juvenile guardianship provisions from Chapter 54 and 55 in order to add them to the children’s code in Chapter 48. The Elder Law section is also actively working to improve Chapter 54 and 55.
Legislature will be Active with Criminal Legislative Proposals
One major piece of legislation that will be introduced next session is a project by the Judicial Council that will overhaul the criminal procedure code. Besides the criminal procedure code legislation, a renewed focus on treatment courts and revising criminal penalties will be debated. During the fall of 2014, two legislative study committees came up with recommendations that will be discussed and possibility introduced as separate legislation in 2015-16.
Inauguration for the 2015-16 session will take place on Jan. 5, 2015.