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Capital City Sunday: Relief fund reduction, first policing bills passed

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Lawmakers crafting the state budget got a dose of even more uncertainly this week when they learned Wisconsin will receive $700 million less than originally estimated under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee took its first votes this week on individual agencies' budgets for the next two years.

Adding to the uncertainty caused the pandemic is knowledge the state will now receive $2.5 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act; original estimate had Wisconsin getting $3.2 billion.

While Gov. Tony Evers has outlined how he'll spend some of that money, much of it remains unaccounted for, which Joint Finance Committee Co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said adds another challenge to the process of rewriting the governor's state budget.

"Right now, it's mostly been press release-type statements on what his plans are so a press release is not a plan," Born said of the governor's ARPA-related announcements to date. "And we'd really like to have a plan to help us with our budget deliberations."

Born said he wasn't too concerned about the update informing the state its relief money would come in two halves; the second of which not arriving for another 12 months. He said he hoped Evers would respond by developing long-term spending programs, such as broadband expansion, that would be a multi-year project anyway.

"We're hopeful that we can work together and figure out how all this federal money that's coming in works together with our state funds and our state budget process," Born said.

Born was part of an emotional exchange Thursday when Democratic lawmakers questioned why GOP members on the finance committee opted to remove Evers' proposed funding increase for the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.

When Born referred Sen. LaTonya Johnson to a small display in the Capitol as an example of Black history being honored by the state, Johnson described Born as "racist ass" on Twitter.

Born said he did not want to continue the discussion about the historical society funding matter or Johnson's remarks, instead saying he was proud of the committee's votes that day to increase funding for veterans suicide prevention initiatives and an emergency fund veterans nursing homes could tap into during a future pandemic or natural disaster.

"I'm not gonna continue the debate moving forward," Born said. "I think we'll move on and the decision was made that was made on that particular part of the budget."

First Police Bills Pass

The State Senate took up nearly a half-dozen related bills Tuesday in the first action the full legislature has taken on police reform since the murder of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake prompted massive protests across the state last year.

The five bills mostly had widespread support although two of the bills drew disagreement from some Democrats and police reform activists.

The bills with full support included a measure that would require the state Department of Justice to begin tracking statewide uses of force - including shootings and incidents when an officer points a gun at someone - and issue an annual report outlining such cases.

Another bill would require local departments to make their use-of-force policies publicly available either on the department or municipality's website.

Another bill would mandate individual officers make their employment files open to other departments during the hiring process; the effort there is to keep cops with a history of misconduct from bouncing from one department to another.

Those bills all passed the Senate unanimously, 33-0, and are expected to get the signature of Gov. Tony Evers.

Much of the debate on the Senate floor centered around a bill altering the makeup of the police and fire commissions in Madison and Milwaukee.
The bill would require the commissions in both cities to dedicate two commissioner spots to candidates on lists submitted by the cities' police and fire unions, respectively.

The only Democrat to vote for that bill was Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who co-sponsored the bills with Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine).

"When you do legislation, you have to come toward the middle," Taylor said. "You have to meet at the center."

Taylor said she opposed the language in the police and fire commission bill that give those unions a say in placing two of the commission's members in Madison and Milwaukee. Still, she said she voted for the bill because it was part of a larger compromise.

"Do I feel that should have happened? I don't," Taylor said. "But do I believe that one person [from the police union] will control a nine [person] panel fire and police commission? I don't."

Taylor added she expected other bills in her package with Wanggaard would reach the Senate floor in either late May or in June, including a partial ban on chokeholds and the creation of an independent use-of-force review board.

The Milwaukee senator doubted other bills activists seek, like ending qualified immunity and banning no-knock warrants, would have enough Republican support to even be introduced.

"I do support [ending] no-knock warrants," Taylor said. "I don't anticipate that that matter is gonna go forward."

Police poll released

The bills passed during the same week the state's largest police union, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, put out its annual poll.

The results from the poll, conducted with the help of St. Norbert College, found 79 percent approved of the job their local department is doing. However, there was a racial disparity as 83 percent of white respondents approved while only 58 percent of people of color did the same.

"First and foremost, we have to be able to acknowledge it and acknowledge there is that disparity," said WPPA President Jim Palmer. "It's not to say we necessarily have the answers on how to address it but I think acknowledging that disparity is a first step in even being able to."

Palmer pointed to the poll finding 49 percent opposed taking money out of police budgets to fund social services. Two-thirds supported increased social services funding on its own but given the constraints on local budgets, Palmer acknowledged that's likely unrealistic.

He said it was possible some resources and responsibilities could be offloaded from police but urged caution.

"These are complicated issues and because public safety hangs in the balance, I think it's important that we're deliberate about it," Palmer said.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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