Jan. 15, 2021 – After the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the 2019-20 session, unfinished business remains for the legislature in 2021-22. With sizable majorities in the Senate and Assembly, Republicans will have considerable control over the legislative agenda. But a very tenuous and shaky relationship with Governor Evers and the Executive branch over dealings with the COVID-19 pandemic will likely temper expectations for any sizeable policy victories.
Legislative Leadership Changes
Many of the legislative leaders in the Assembly will return to their posts in 2021-22. Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) returns as the Speaker of the Assembly and Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) will remain as Majority Leader. In the Senate, Sen. Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) replaces Sen. Scott Fitzgerald after his successful election to Congress as Majority Leader and Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) is the new Senate President. On the Democrats side, Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) returns as the Assembly Minority Leader and Janet Bewley (D-Mason) will continue as Senate Minority Leader.
The biggest changes were made to the Joint Finance Committee leadership. Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) will jointly lead the committee as it deals with Governor Evers biennial budget proposal this spring.
State Bar to Focus on Expungement, Returning 17-Year-Olds to Juvenile Court and Funding Issues
The State Bar of Wisconsin’s lobbying focus will be on a number of issues this session. Efforts over the past two sessions to pass a bipartisan reform of the expungement statute have just narrowly missed. Last session, AB 33 passed with an overwhelming majority voice vote and has the cosponsored support of a majority of State Senators, but was unable to reach the Senate floor for a final vote. A top priority of the State Bar’s legislative agenda and grassroots efforts will be to push for this important criminal justice reform. The State Bar anticipates a new bill draft will be introduced soon for the 21-22 session and will continue to encourage our members to engage in finding legislative support.
Cale Battles is a Government Relations Coordinator for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
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 in previous sessions and the Governor included this important initiative in his last biennial budget only to see it removed as non-fiscal policy. Efforts to revitalize this important issue are ongoing for the upcoming session. Wisconsin is now only one of three states that continue to recognize 17-year olds as adults in court proceedings.
Court funding and budget needs of District Attorneys, the State Public Defenders and the Private Bar rate will continue to be a bedrock of the State Bar’s agenda. Maintaining funding for our courts to lead our judiciary with post-pandemic efforts as well as advocating for pay progression for our Assistant District Attorneys and State Public Defenders and keeping the Private Bar rate at the recently increased level of $70 will continue to be important priorities in the budget. State support of Civil Legal Needs funding will also be an important ask during the budget process. Fallout from the pandemic has shown that many of our fellow Wisconsinites need the assistance of attorneys in civil matters. Assistance with maintaining employment, housing, veterans’ issues, domestic violence have all risen during these past 10 months.
Practice Sections to be Deeply Involved in Multiple Legislative Proposals
The lobbying sections at the State Bar will introduce a number of proactive legislative initiatives during the upcoming legislative cycle. A number of these projects have been studied and worked on by the sections for many years. Below is a summary of just some of those proposals.
The Business Law section will reintroduce, Assembly Bill 854, from last session. AB 854 will foster uniformity with other states and update current laws to assist in creating and growing current Wisconsin businesses. The Elder Law and Special Needs section (ELSN) will continue to work on elder abuse legislation. The ELSN last session opposed two bills, Assembly Bill 481 and Assembly Bill 482, which the section felt went too far both on the definition of age and increased ability of financial institutions to freeze assets of customers or valid Powers of Attorney documents.
Real Property, Probate and Trust section (RPPT) continues to review updates to the Uniform Trust Code. RPPT also continues to monitor potential changes to remote notary and witnessing requirements. Bankruptcy, Insolvency and Creditor Rights (BICR) plans to reintroduce language, Assembly Bill 541, creating exemptions from bankruptcy judgements for Health Savings Accounts and Medical Savings Accounts.
The Public Interest Law and other sections will be pro-actively working on legislation regarding ending the practice of allowing courts to order driver’s license suspensions and warrants for the purpose of collecting unpaid ticket debt. The Taxation Law section is reinvigorating a proposal to establish a ten year statute of limitations on tax collections.
The Family Law Section is planning to reintroduce their contingent placement initiative, Assembly Bill 95, along with a few other new initiatives the section is working to finalize. These involve stipulation orders and exchanging financial information post-divorce. They also hope to support some initiatives from the 2018 Child Placement and Support Study Committee, which included section members, when they are reintroduced. Those bills were affected by the early end of session due to the pandemic.
The Children and the Law Section continues its review of the Uniform Parentage Act, conforming the Uniform Law Commission proposal with WI statutes withhopes to see introduction of that legislation this session. Finally, the Construction Law Section is exploring making some changes to lien laws in the future.
State Bar’s Grassroots and Advocacy Network
Launched in 2019, the State Bar continues to grow our outreach efforts to members and encourages lawyer participation in the legislative process. Member engagement is a vital tool to let policy makers know of support or concerns for legislative issues. The State Bar’s Advocacy Network encourages a productive and positive contribution to the legislative process. Attorney input, advice and expertise is very impactful on the legislative process and continued engagement into the process leads to better policy outcomes.
The State Bar Government Relations Department also encourages members to sign-up for our department’s newsletter, Rotunda Report or follow us on Twitter at @SBWRotundaRpt.