A tumultuous week that put on full display the partisan agendas of Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican Legislature also revealed the limitations both face under divided government that increasingly results in gridlock.
Republicans started and ended an Evers-called special session on guns within seconds, taking no action, and they fired an Evers Cabinet secretary as the scowling governor watched from the floor of the Senate. Democrats rebuffed three attempts to reverse Evers’ vetoes, the first override votes in nearly a decade.
Meanwhile, the Senate ended its work for the year having passed few bills. The Assembly is coming back for one more day before 2020.
Evers has signed just 20 bills into law during his first year in office—a fraction of what his predecessors have done under divided governments—and has vetoed seven bills in their entirety. If that continues, it will be the highest veto rate of any governor in Wisconsin history, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
In a word: gridlock.
“It disappoints me because I know we’re better than this,” said Dale Schultz, a Republican who served in the Legislature for 23 years before retiring in 2014. “I’ve seen us better than this.”
Much of the partisan dramatics resulted in very little that will affect the average Wisconsin family. While Republicans exerted their power by firing Evers’ agriculture secretary, less than two days later he appointed an interim replacement who will carry through with his administration’s goals without missing a beat.
Democrats pushed for a pair of gun control bills, pointing to polls showing broad public support and arguing that the measures would reduce the number of suicides by firearms and increase public safety. Republicans discounted the arguments and took no votes on the bills calling for a universal background check and allowing judges to take away guns from people determined to be a threat.
Tim Cullen, a former Democratic state senator from Janesville who crossed party lines to serve in the Cabinet of a Republican governor, said the gridlock was “bad for Wisconsin.”
“As I see the problem, there are no outer boundaries beyond which partisanship doesn’t go any more,” Cullen said.
This week of unrest is just a continuation of what had been going on even before Evers took office.
Republicans convened a lame-duck session to weaken his powers weeks before he took the oath. Once in power, the Legislature has looked for every way possible to stymie his agenda. Ousting his agriculture secretary this week so angered Evers that he took the seemingly unprecedented step of watching the debate in person, just a few feet away from lawmakers. The normally mild-mannered Evers, a former teacher and state education chief whose preferred form of entertainment is the card game euchre, lashed out at Republicans in the halls of the Capitol in an angry retort sprinkled with profane words.
Democrats tried to score a political win in the defeat of the gun control bills in the special session that wasn’t.
Senate Democrats maximized the drama, pausing for a moment of silence to recognize victims of gun violence at the appointed start time of the special session when Republicans were nowhere to be found. Democrats in the Assembly, while denied a chance to debate or vote on the gun bills, still hammered Republicans for dodging the issue. Polls show more than 80% public support for the measures.
Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said he hoped inaction by Republicans would lead to voters ousting Republicans, as happened in Virginia this week after GOP lawmakers there refused to take up gun control legislation.
To end the week, Evers threatened to re-ignite an evergreen fight over what to call a tree decorated ahead of Christmas in the Capitol rotunda. It was called a “holiday tree” for 25 years, but former Gov. Scott Walker called it a Christmas tree the past eight years. Evers on Friday announced he was once again calling it a “holiday tree” and said the theme for decorating it was “celebrating science.”
The partisan fighting with few tangible results frustrates people who want and expect the Legislature to address issues that are important to the state, said Schultz, the former Republican lawmaker.
“They have to look themselves in the mirror and ask what responsibility they have for the gridlock and what they can do to make it better,” Schultz said. “We have far too many people counting coup and not enough people cherishing friendships and sharing a belief that the future can be better.”
U.S. health officials announced a breakthrough Friday into the cause of a mysterious outbreak of vaping illnesses, reporting they have a “very strong culprit.”
The same chemical compound was found in fluid taken from the lungs of 29 patients across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The compound—vitamin E acetate—was previously found in liquid from electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices used by many of those who got sick.
But this is the first time they’ve found a common suspect in the damaged lungs of patients, officials said.
“We are in a better place in terms of having one very strong culprit,” said the CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat.
Agency officials cautioned they cannot rule out all other toxic substances, and it might take animal studies to clearly show vitamin E acetate causes the lung damage that has been seen.
More than 2,000 Americans who vape have gotten sick since March, many of them teens and young adults, and at least 40 people have died. The bulk of the cases occurred in August and September, but new cases are still being reported.
Vitamin E acetate has only recently been used as a thickener in vaping fluid, particularly in black market vape cartridges. While vitamin E is safe as a vitamin pill or to use on the skin, inhaling oily droplets of it can be harmful. It’s sticky and stays in the lungs—the CDC’s Dr. Jim Pirkle likened it to honey.
Many who got sick said they had vaped liquids that contain THC, the high-inducing part of marijuana, with many saying they got them from friends or bought them on the black market.
E-cigarettes and other vaping devices heat a liquid into an inhalable vapor. Most products contained nicotine, but THC vaping has been growing more common.
Pirkle said thickeners like vitamin E acetate probably would not be routinely added to nicotine liquids, which need to be more watery for vaping.
Juul Labs, maker of the top-selling brand of e-cigarette, issued a statement after the CDC announcement, noting that its nicotine products do not contain THC or any vitamin E compounds.
Symptoms of the vaping illness include trouble breathing, chest pain, fatigue and vomiting. Imaging tests show lung injuries and doctors can’t find infections or other causes.
About two months ago, New York drew attention to vitamin E acetate when the state’s public health lab discovered it in samples of vaping products from sick patients. In some instances, it made up more than half of the liquid in the cartridges.
The chemical has shown up in tests in other labs, too, including a U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab in Cincinnati that found vitamin E acetate in half of more than 400 THC samples.
For the latest test, the CDC used fluid extracted from the lungs of 29 patients in 10 states, including two who died. Lab workers looked for a range of substances that had been found in various vaping devices, including nicotine, THC and other marijuana components, plant oils, mineral oil and cutting agents used on the black market.
It was an exhaustive list of more than 1,000, said Pirkle, who oversees the agency’s chemical analysis labs.
The one substance that came up in all 29 was vitamin E acetate.
“To me what’s important here is both what they found and what they didn’t find” said Scott Becker, head of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “This was the only thing they found.”
Portland State University’s Robert Strongin, who has researched e-cigarettes, welcomed the CDC report but cautioned it doesn’t mean other ingredients in vaping products are safe. “They still could cause long-term harm,” he said.
The CDC’s Pirkle said animal testing is now a priority and might produce results within a year.
“We really need the animal study to nail down cause and effect,” he said.
William V. “Bill” Brown
Patricia Lynn Giles
Chad Michael Yeary
The city of Janesville is not the only entity looking to build an indoor sports complex near Milton Avenue’s retail corridor.
The Janesville Athletic Club plans to repurpose 24,000 square feet of its facility on Black Bridge Road to create an indoor sports complex, complete with batting cages, strength training equipment and one turf field that could host soccer, football, lacrosse and golf, owner Mark Groshan said.
The club had planned to build a sports complex by summer 2019, but it delayed the project to learn more about the city’s plans, Groshan said.
City staff believes a city-owned sports complex and a Janesville Athletic Club facility could coexist, Jen Petruzzello, city neighborhood and community services director, said in an email to The Gazette.
Convention, Sports and Leisure—the consulting group hired to design the city’s indoor sports complex feasibility plan—considered the athletic club’s plans in its study, Petruzzello said.
The consultant determined Janesville has enough need that both facilities could offer indoor sports amenities without negatively affecting each other, Petruzzello said.
Groshan was made aware of the city’s request for proposals of potential sports complex sites, but he chose not to participate, Petruzzello said.
A city-owned indoor sports complex still needs approval from the city council, a plan for financing construction and designs. The council is set to vote Monday on a proposal to locate the complex in the Janesville Mall.
Fall 2022 is the earliest the city’s complex could open its doors, according to plans outlined in a recent study session.
The athletic club will finalize its designs in spring, begin construction in June and be ready to open in August, Groshan said.
A city-owned indoor sports complex would include:
The city could save millions of dollars in construction costs and prevent future losses if officials work with the athletic club to host tournaments or programs at the club, Groshan said.
The city’s feasibility report indicated the city needs to have a main sheet of ice, interchangeable sheet of ice and a third flexible space in the same facility to be sustainable, Petruzzello said.
The city’s plans for a complex will not be affected by the athletic club’s plans, Petruzzello said.
Building and maintaining non-ice facilities is less expensive than ice facilities, but the city still must include them in the complex because non-ice activities are projected to generate more than one-third of the complex’s revenue, Petruzzello said.
A steering committee, the city’s parks and recreation advisory committee and the plan commission have endorsed the Janesville Mall site for the indoor sports complex because it is close to restaurants and hotels.
Mall officials have offered to give the city the space for free, and they hope to build a family fun center in the mall to complement the sports complex.
The athletic club is less than one mile south of the mall and has the same access to Milton Avenue amenities.
Groshan said his indoor sports complex will complement existing amenities at the athletic club, such as basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts, exercise equipment, group fitness classes and swimming pools.
The club plans to build its sports complex in the back of its existing facility. Groshan declined to say whether any existing services will be eliminated or relocated to accommodate the complex.
The athletic club will make design decisions based on input from local sports organizations, he said. Students from Craig High School’s Elevate program will work with the club to survey those organizations.
Groshan said he is excited to help high school students get real-life experience through the partnership.
“I personally believe that changes Mr. Groshan is considering for his business could be beneficial for the community, and I wish him success in implementing his plans,” Petruzzello said.