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State justices uphold laws Republicans passed in lame-duck session


The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld lame-duck laws Friday that limit the power of the state’s new Democratic governor, handing Republicans a victory in one of several legal fights over the laws.

Two other lawsuits over the lame-duck laws are ongoing. The state Supreme Court is considering one and a federal judge the other.

In Friday’s 4-3 decision, conservatives on the state’s high court found lawmakers were allowed to bring themselves into session in December to trim the authority of Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul just before they took office.

“The Wisconsin Constitution mandates that the Legislature meet ‘at such time as shall be provided by law.’ The Legislature did so,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Disability Rights Wisconsin in January sued over the lame-duck laws, arguing legislators had illegally approved them.

To pass the measures, legislators held what’s known as an extraordinary session, in which they bring themselves to the Capitol when they’re not scheduled to be there.

The groups argued such sessions aren’t allowed because the state constitution says lawmakers can meet only when called into a special session by the governor or as provided by law.

Legislators have held extraordinary sessions for four decades, but until now the practice hadn’t been challenged.

The groups sought to have the court declare all of the Legislature’s December actions invalid, including the Senate’s confirmation of 82 appointments made by former Gov. Scott Walker before he left office. The court’s majority rejected that request.

State law does not explicitly describe extraordinary sessions. Instead, it says lawmakers must create a work schedule for each session.

Lawmakers wrote a work schedule that said they had the power to hold extraordinary sessions whenever they wanted. That was enough to comply with the constitutional provisions on when the Legislature can meet, the majority concluded.

“How the Legislature meets, when it meets and what descriptive titles the Legislature assigns to those meetings or their operating procedures constitute parts of the legislative process with which the judicial branch ‘has no jurisdiction or right’ to interfere,” Bradley wrote, quoting from a decision that upheld the process lawmakers used to approve Act 10, the 2011 law that limited collective bargaining for most public workers in Wisconsin.

Joining Bradley were the court’s other conservatives, Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and justices Daniel Kelly and Annette Ziegler.

In dissent were the liberals,justices Shirley Abrahamson, Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Dallet (the Bradleys are not related).

The decision comes just weeks before the conservative majority on the court will grow from 4-3 to 5-2. Appeals Judge Brian Hagedorn was elected in April to replace Abrahamson, who did not seek re-election. He will be sworn in in August.

Writing for the dissenters, Dallet contended the Legislature’s two-year session “ceased to exist” in March 2018, when it held its last planned meeting. Leaders had “no authority” to bring lawmakers back in December because no state law gave them that power, she wrote.

“The Legislature violated the plain constitutional text, and this court must act as a check,” she wrote.

In a statement, Evers called the decision predictable and disappointing.

“It is based on a desired political outcome, not the plain meaning and text of the constitution,” his statement said.

“Our framers knew that no good comes from lawmakers rushing laws through at the last minute without public scrutiny. The lame-duck session proves the framers were right. This was an attack on the will of the people, our democracy, and our system of government.”

The Legislature’s top Republicans, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, praised the decision in a joint statement.

“The court upheld a previously non-controversial legislative practice used by both parties for decades to enact some of the most important laws in the state,” their statement said.

Taxpayers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on private attorneys hired by Evers and Republican lawmakers. Vos and Fitzgerald called the spending a “waste of taxpayer resources.”

“We urge the governor to work with the Legislature instead of pursuing his political agenda through the courts,” their statement said.

Leaders of the League of Women Voters argued the decision subverted democracy.

“Today’s decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court undermines the will of Wisconsin voters,” said a statement from Chris Carson, the league’s national president. “The Wisconsin State Legislature’s actions defied the democratic process, which is a major blow to our democracy as a whole.”

Republican lawmakers argued a ruling against them could have endangered laws that have been passed in extraordinary sessions over the last four decades. Legislators have used extraordinary sessions to pass hundreds of laws since 1980, including ones toughening penalties for child sex offenders and providing public funding for Fiserv Forum, the new Milwaukee Bucks arena that will host the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Those challenging the laws had early success in court. In March, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess blocked the lame-duck laws, but an appeals court stayed part of his ruling and the Supreme Court stayed the rest of it as the justices considered the case.

The tide has shifted in another case, as well, and now most of the laws are in effect.

The laws are broad. They require a committee of legislators, rather than the attorney general, to sign off on some court settlements; put lawmakers in charge of signing off on any changes to public benefits programs; require the Evers administration to rewrite thousands of government documents and websites; and give lawmakers the ability to more easily block rules written by the Evers administration and intervene in lawsuits challenging state laws.

For now, all of them are in effect except for parts of the provision on government documents and a limit on early voting. The early-voting restriction was struck down in January by a federal judge who found it violated an injunction he had issued in a voting rights case.

With Friday’s ruling, attention will shift to the two remaining lawsuits over the lame-duck laws.

The state Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the coming months in a lawsuit brought by unions that argues the laws violate the state constitution’s separation-of-powers doctrine, which delineates what powers belong to each branch of government.

Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington ruled in favor of the unions on part of their case in March, but the Supreme Court this month suspended most of his decision while it considers the appeal.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson is considering a third case that argues the lame-duck laws violate the First Amendment rights of Democrats. That case, filed by the state Democratic Party in February, is in its early stages.

Angela Major 

11-year-old Denisse Espinosa picks strawberries Friday, June 21, 2019, at Skelly’s Farm Market in Janesville.

Angela Major 

9-year-old Caden Watkins fills a box with strawberries Friday, June 21, 2019, at Skelly's Farm Market in Janesville.

Obituaries and death notices for June 22, 2019

Carolyn L. Bills

Sharon L. Brown

Bonnie J. Lind

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Delavan-Darien, Beloit lost more than $4 million from open enrollment in 2018-19

Students continue to open enroll out of the Delavan-Darien and Beloit school districts in staggering numbers—and the losses are costly.

In the 2018-19 school year, Delavan-Darien recorded a loss of 541 students through open enrollment, which accounted for about $4.4 million in lost revenue.

Beloit lost 585 students, costing the district about $4.3 million in revenue.

Open enrollment penalized those districts far more than any others in Rock and Walworth counties in the last school year. Unsurprisingly, districts adjacent to Delavan-Darien and Beloit—Elkhorn and Beloit Turner—saw dramatic rises in open-enrolled students in the same period.

Beloit Turner gained 352 students, augmenting its budget by $2.65 million. Elkhorn’s student body grew by 325 students, pumping an additional $2.6 million into the district.

Beloit Turner’s open enrollment numbers have been climbing steadily for years.

In the 2009-10 school year, the district had a net gain of 48 students through open enrollment. That number jumped to 196 by the 2012-13 school year and 279 by 2016-17.

Next year, Beloit Turner’s financial boost will be so dramatic that the dollars it receives from open enrollment could exceed the money it collects from property taxpayers. That largely will depend on how discussions on the 2019-21 state budget shake out in the Legislature, said Brad Boll, the district’s director of business services.

Boll said the influx of open enrollment dollars has allowed Beloit Turner to address maintenance issues now and avoid letting them compound over time like other districts across the state.

It also has helped the district avoid floating an operational referendum to fund operations.

“That is 100% entirely because of the money we get from open enrollment,” Boll said.

More than 90% of the students open enrolling into Beloit Turner are from the Beloit School District, he said. Next school year, nonresidents are expected to make up 35% of the district’s overall student body.

Officials say it’s unknown why so many students leave Delavan-Darien and Beloit. Delavan-Darien officials for years have pointed to their state report card score, which is the highest of any school district in Walworth County.

Delavan-Darien Superintendent Jill Sorbie did not respond to a request for comment.

Nearly 160 Delavan-Darien students applied to enroll out of the district at the end of the 2017-18 school year, and about 80 students in 4-year-old kindergarten and kindergarten enrolled out of the district before classes started in the 2018-19 school year.

Over six years, Delavan-Darien has seen about a 16%drop in enrollment. Last school year, the district reported having 59 fewer students in 4-year-old kindergarten than graduating seniors in 2017-18.

In an email, Delavan-Darien Business Administrator Anthony Klein lauded the district for having fewer open enrollments than anticipated.

“We ended up better than expected,” Klein wrote. “… We are grateful for the parents who decided to stay with the district this year, and we are hoping to see continued positive momentum on this moving forward.”

In an effort to curtail falling enrollment, Delavan-Darien has partnered with The Learning Curve in Elkhorn to establish an educational day care center at Wileman Elementary.

Sorbie has said the program could attract new students to the district and act as a pipeline into 4-year-old kindergarten.