A high-powered Democratic attorney promised Saturday to bring a legal challenge if Wisconsin Republicans adopt a proposed limit on early voting that they could take up Tuesday in a lame-duck legislative session.
Republican lawmakers plan to vote Tuesday on a sweeping plan that aims to weaken incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Part of that plan also would put a two-week limit on early voting in an effort to decrease voter turnout. The plan also would move the 2020 presidential primary election to help a conservative state Supreme Court justice win his election.
Marc Elias, who once served as the general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said Saturday Republican lawmakers won’t pass a limit on early voting “without a fight.”
“We sued Wisconsin over their ID law in 2016. We sued again when Wisconsin failed to hold special elections. If the GOP thinks they can disenfranchise voters by cutting early voting without a fight, they are wrong,” Elias tweeted.
Responded liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now: “We’re ready, counselor.”
Elias represented an affiliate of One Wisconsin Now in the case that resulted in the 2016 decision striking down previous limits to early voting.
Aides to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos declined to comment Saturday on the threat of a lawsuit over the proposal.
In his 2016 decision, U.S. District Judge James Peterson found that the limits on early voting were part of a Republican effort of “stifling votes for partisan gain.” He dismissed claims by Republicans that they wanted uniform rules for rural communities that tend to vote for Republicans and large cities that tend to vote for Democrats.
“Wisconsin’s approach in this instance was backward: rather than expanding in-person absentee voting in smaller municipalities, the state limited in-person absentee voting in larger municipalities,” Peterson wrote. “By doing so, the state has imposed moderate burdens on the residents of those larger municipalities.”
In response to Peterson’s ruling, Milwaukee, Madison and other municipalities expanded their voting hours and allowed people to vote at multiple locations.
The case is pending before an appeals court. If Republicans adopt the new limits, Elias could raise the issue before Peterson or the appeals court as part of the existing lawsuit or bring a new case.
“While controlling state government, Wisconsin Republicans time and again tried to rig the rules on voting to give themselves an unfair partisan advantage,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. “Now, even after losing every statewide office on the ballot, they’re at it again.”
Ross said the group will consult with its lawyers before deciding whether to bring a legal challenge to what is ultimately passed by lawmakers.
The new limits are slightly different than the earlier ones. The previous restrictions limited early voting to two weeks and barred weekend voting. The new restrictions would limit early voting to two weeks but allow Saturday voting.
Elias was also on the legal team that brought a successful lawsuit against GOP Gov. Scott Walker over not calling special elections to fill vacant legislative seats earlier this year.
Elias tweeted his statement as Democratic anger over the wide-ranging GOP plan—released late Friday—began to grow.
Legislature gains power under plan
Another part of the plan would give Republicans more say—if not outright control—of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. That entity oversees job creation and Evers has pledged to dissolve it and re-establish the former state Commerce Department to do that work.
Under one plan, Republicans and Democrats would each have six members on WEDC’s board. Under a competing plan Republicans are considering, Republicans would get 10 appointees and Democrats would get eight. The board—not the governor, as is the case now—would get to pick WEDC’s director.
In addition, lawmakers would gain more control of WEDC’s enterprise zone program, which provides tax breaks to businesses. The Legislature’s budget committee would get to decide who gets those tax breaks, and limits on the number of zones that could be created would be eliminated.
Another provision would require the state to channel much of the federal road money it gets into a small number of projects. That would mean more projects would be funded with state money only and could get out of having to comply with federal environmental regulations and standards that require construction crews to make union-level wages.
But the arrangement could mean the state would miss out on qualifying for some federal aid that it would otherwise qualify for, according to a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Another measure would allow local governments to avoid having to follow state standards for some road projects, even when they use state funds.
The GOP plan would also greatly limit Kaul’s power before he replaces GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel, whom he narrowly defeated three weeks ago.
Kaul said late Friday that the effort ignores the will of voters in the Nov. 6 election.
The Legislature—not the attorney general—would have control of how to spend money from court settlements. The recently created office of the solicitor general, which oversees high-profile litigation, would be eliminated.
Legislators would gain the power to intervene in any litigation when a state law is challenged, and they would have the ability to appoint their own private attorneys—at taxpayer expense—to handle the case instead of the attorney general.
Primary move considered
Also being considered is moving the 2020 presidential primary election to March instead of it taking place the same day as the state spring election in April.
Fitzgerald said the move would benefit conservative Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly in his election bid that year. Kelly was appointed to the court in 2016 by Walker.
Republicans fear Kelly could lose his court seat because he’s up for election the same day as the presidential primary, which lawmakers expect will draw significant voter turnout that would benefit Democratic or liberal-leaning candidates.
Democrats could see a surge of turnout as they decide who will challenge President Donald Trump, and that could sink Kelly’s chances of winning a full 10-year term on the court, according to this theory.
Moving the presidential primary to March is expected to cost taxpayers about $7 million because it will require an election in addition to the February and April elections that are already scheduled.
Kelly won’t say whether he backs the idea or has encouraged lawmakers to pass the measure.
Lawmakers are holding a hearing on their plan at 12:30 p.m. Monday in the state Capitol and plan to vote on it Tuesday. That would get it to Walker in time for him to sign it before he turns over his office to Evers on Jan. 7.
The state Elections Commission also will meet Monday at 9 a.m. to discuss the proposal to move the 2020 presidential primary election and change in-person absentee voting and overseas absentee voting.
Aides to Walker did not immediately say Saturday whether the governor would support or veto any of the measures. He has said he is open to some of them, such as moving the presidential primary, but has not spoken publicly about many of them.
Many of the measures being considered provide more oversight and power to the Legislature—especially to the already-powerful Joint Committee on Finance, which writes the state budget lawmakers in both houses vote to approve.
For example, the Department of Children and Families secretary would have to seek approval from the Legislature’s finance committee before reallocating federal funds within agency programs relying on them.
And the Department of Administration under Evers also would no longer be able to lease or acquire space for legislative offices or agencies providing services to the Legislature. Under the plan, lawmakers would take that job over.
Meanwhile, at the DPI
In another proposal that has some conservatives scratching their heads, Republicans would appear to abandon their years-long effort to require rules written by the leader of the Department of Public Instruction to be approved by the governor.
Evers, who has been DPI’s state superintendent since 2009, has been at odds with Republicans over his authority as the head of the state’s education agency to craft rules and regulations related to school policy and curriculum.
The conservative legal firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is suing Evers over failing to submit his rules to the governor as a new state law requires. However, Evers has argued that as a constitutional officer, the state superintendent is exempt from such a law.
The state Supreme Court sided with that theory in 2016, before WILL filed the new lawsuit, and will hear arguments in the new case.
Under the measure being considered by lawmakers next week, DPI would be officially exempt from a state requirement forcing state agencies to submit rules and regulations to the governor.
“Trying to reign in the power of bureaucrats was one of the greatest achievements of Governor Walker and Republican leadership. So it is very disappointing to see that someone is proposing to exempt the Department of Public Instruction from parts of the rule-making process,” C.J. Szafir, executive vice president of WILL, said Saturday.
Not being considered Tuesday is the reason lawmakers said they would meet before January: an incentive package for Fox Valley paper-maker Kimberly-Clark, which has threatened to shutter one plant if lawmakers don’t pass tax incentives to keep it open.
The package was passed by the Assembly in February but struggled to gain support in the Senate, despite Walker urging lawmakers to pass it.
Other provisions under consideration would:
Jeff Sonn is bringing the waffle irons and the mix.
In 17 years, the grateful father has never missed being part of “Waffles with Santa.”
The reason is simple: He wants to give back to the special-education school that made a huge difference in his son’s life.
Young people ages 3 to 21 attend Elkhorn’s Lakeland School, which offers highly structured programs to prepare them for life.
On Saturday, Dec. 8, Sonn and other eager volunteers will make about 1,000 waffles in four hours to raise money for the school.
Sonn is president of the nonprofit Friends of Lakeland School, which raises money to buy important things that are often beyond the school’s budget.
He invites people to the school for good food and warm camaraderie.
But he also hopes they will read and be inspired by the new 16-foot-long timeline, which was unveiled in October on a prominent wall.
“We want people to know that Walworth County was a leader in special education,” Sonn said.
Friends group member Joe Guido and Sonn put together the timeline, highlighting the school’s milestones.
It begins with a visionary named Sheridan Ellsworth.
Ellsworth was the county’s school superintendent from 1949 to 1956 and inspired what is now Lakeland School.
Early in his career, Ellsworth heard from the mother of a girl who did not learn as quickly as her peers. The child’s classmates teased her, and she quickly lost interest in school.
Ellsworth wanted the child and others like her to be able to learn at their own pace.
Long before schools were required to educate students with special needs, Ellsworth thought of the idea of a separate school. He organized Walworth County supervisors, educators and residents.
In response, the county board created a special services committee. The committee came to the county board with a request for money to establish a county rural program.
In September 1950, the committee launched a pilot project with 14 students, who met in rented space at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Elkhorn.
As word spread, more children with disabilities came to the school to realize their potential.
In 1954, Walworth County appropriated $87,000 to build the Special School, as it was called then.
A year later, the school was dedicated in Elkhorn, and 47 students attended.
With the school’s opening, Walworth County became the first rural county in the nation to provide a stand-alone school for children with disabilities.
Eventually, 10 rooms and a state-of-the-art swimming pool were added as enrollment increased.
Fast forward to 2006, when the county board approved a new Lakeland School building on County NN.
Today, about 200 students attend classes there.
The school and its programs offer a rare resource for the 15 school districts in Walworth County and for families in and surrounding the county, Sonn said.
Parents have an option. They decide with educators whether it is better for their children to attend Lakeland School or a local school in their district.
With the exception of a school in Brown County, “there is no other rural county in America that offers families a choice,” Sonn said. “Some families have moved to Walworth County because of Lakeland School.”
On a recent morning, students moved freely in the hallways of the building with a sense of independence.
“Our kids know this is their school, and there’s a lot of power in it,” said Tracy Moate, director of special education. “Kids feel a sense of calm and ownership.”
For Sonn, the school was a life-changer.
His son, Kian, attended Lakeland until he was 21 and graduated three years ago. Kian now works at the Whitewater food pantry.
“It’s a miracle,” Sonn said, referring to Lakeland School.
“It’s the most devastating thing in the world when you find out your child was born with a disability,” he said. “But when you find out about this school, your life begins to be normal again.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virene “Vi” Boughton
James “Jim” Brown
Lyda M. Codman
Beverlee J. Conrad
Angela L. Hines
James Peter Kealey
Michael J. Kimpel
Dolores “Jean” Logterman
Brenda L. Merath
Jerry W. Petrone
Earl F. Schlegel
Mary Ellen Fellows Schneider
Clarence E. Schultz
Graham Erik Smith
Janesville Police Sgt. Ben Thompson was on patrol downtown a few weeks ago when he found a homeless man sleeping outside on a piece of cardboard, covered with a few old blankets.
It was 1 a.m., and the temperature was 18 degrees.
Thompson, who is known by his police colleagues as Benji, woke the homeless man and offered him a ride to a shelter or warming center—a slim list of short-term fixes that would beat sleeping on a slab of cardboard in a cold corner of the city.
The homeless man told Thompson he didn’t want to go anywhere.
“I exhausted all resources I had at 1 a.m. on an early Sunday morning. Ultimately, he didn’t want any help. He just kind of stayed there,” Thompson said. “It’s difficult to wrap your head around somebody surviving outside like that. Some people are just content with the situation they’re in—too proud for help.”
The Janesville Police Department and the city administration as a whole is working with local social service agencies and county officials to form a core of new outreach programs and possible transitional housing solutions for the homeless population.
Over the last six months, 42 people including Janesville police, city housing officials, Rock County health and social workers, local church leaders and nonprofit agency officials have formed a joint community homeless task force. The Janesville group has met five times to develop a hot list of priorities and programs.
The short-term goal—at least this winter—the officials say, is to ensure fewer people in Janesville have to live in the cold or even risk their lives spending nights out on the frigid ground.
Over the longer term, officials plan to research housing alternatives and even some city-led work programs aimed at helping those recovering from homelessness get a foothold and transition away the streets.
One program is set to launch now.
Thompson is leading a homeless outreach program that starts later this month. It pairs four Janesville police officers with nonprofit and social service agency officials to search areas of the city for homeless people. Once a month, the officers and social service officials will pair off for an eight-hour shift in an initiative that’s being called HOT—an acronym for Homeless Outreach Team.
Thompson said his department chose officers for HOT who are skilled and experienced handling people with mental health or substance abuse problems. One officer was a Capitol police officer in Madison who spent time on that city’s homeless task force. Another has experience in domestic violence and family crisis management.
Pairing officers with local social service agents who have experience counseling and aiding homeless people will give police a working knowledge of programs immediately available to help the homeless and create a clearer path to channel homeless people toward help that might best suit them.
“The goal would be to make contact with people and try to offer them services. What can you do? Are you eligible to go to GIFTS (Men’s Shelter)? Is there some place to go with a family member or a friend? If not, there are warming shelters available. That 3 a.m. offer would be, ‘What can we do right now?’” Thompson said.
“If that same contact occurred during the day, we’d probably offer them specific services, ask them if they’re interested in applying for transitional or emergency housing,” he said.
Thompson said it’s a new approach for police. The focus isn’t on enforcing state statutes or city ordinances that prohibit public drinking, sleeping in parks, illegal camping and littering. The goal, Thompson said, is not to wake homeless people, ticket them and tell them move along.
“What is unique is that in the past, we’d just kind of offer ‘Hey, can we drive you somewhere?’ and that might be the end of it. The help now coming through partnerships with our agencies is we’re able to offer them specific services.”
City Manager Mark Freitag said the community homelessness group has pegged another goal: more transitional housing for homeless people who are trying to get back on their feet.
Some Janesville nonprofits, such as ECHO, run voucher programs for short-term or emergency housing, but those options have become limited amid an emerging shortage of available rental housing.
Freitag said the city is researching whether the city could convert a few of the homes it buys through tax foreclosure into transitional housing for homeless people.
Some homes the city buys are rehabbed through state and federal housing programs for sale to families as affordable housing.
Kelly Bedessem, the city’s housing services director, said housing authorities are eying the feasibility of gearing a few homes the city buys as havens for the homeless population, although she said there are “10,000 questions.”
“The majority of these properties take a good deal of investment to make them safe and sanitary,” Bedessem said. “Do we do that with some of our grant funds? Is it impactful? And who is going to manage the program, and what does it look like?”
Bedessem said her department might work with nonprofit groups that already are part of a countywide homeless panel, the Homeless Intervention Task Force, to find an agency willing to tackle case management of a transitional housing program.
Bedessem said some residential lots the city has cleared in the past might be suitable for so-called “micro-homes”—homes as small as a few hundred square feet.
The idea might be to build sets of six to eight tiny homes on a lot with a common garden area.
One local nonprofit has shown interest in a micro-home project, Bedessem said.
The question is whether micro-homes would serve as transitional housing for the homeless, or whether they might be rented or sold as a “stepping stone” toward ownership of a larger home, Bedessem said.
The city in its 2019 budget has allocated $625,000 for “affordable housing” to address an overall housing shortage in Janesville. Much of that funding comes through grant sources, but it’s been set aside in a way that makes its use flexible, Bedessem said, possibly for housing for homeless people.
“It’s a good chunk of change. We’ve never dedicated that kind of money to affordable housing in that fashion. We have an ability to be creative this year, and it’s something we need to look into,” Bedessem said.
Freitag said some cities hire homeless people through municipal work programs. The option isn’t dramatically different than job placement programs already run by local nonprofits that serve the homeless population.
“We hire seasonal employees throughout the year,” Freitag said. “You’d essentially provide somebody who is homeless some seasonal-type work to get them some steady income.”
Freitag said a portion of the homeless population doesn’t have steady access to transportation to get to work. Some have jobs that aren’t on Janesville Transit System routes, and some work weekends or late shifts when the transit’s not running.
Freitag said he plans to talk with Forward Janesville and the business community about transportation options that would help homeless people who would work if they had transportation.
Another plan could focus on an increase in capacity at local hospitals for voluntary drug and alcohol detoxification. The homeless population historically has a high rate of addiction and substance abuse, often coupled with mental illness. Freitag said that plan is more long-range.
“Everyone recognizes that homelessness is such a complex problem set,” Freitag said. “We’ve got more questions than answers.”
Ben Thompson, the Janesville police sergeant, hopes the emerging programs can help reach a segment of the homeless population that sometimes doesn’t show a willingness to accept help.
“This past summer, we dealt with a group of 12 to 15 (homeless) people in the downtown who didn’t care if they got (ordinance) citations at all. They didn’t have the means to pay their tickets. They’re not going to pay. Their goal was that they’d have arrest warrants by wintertime so they’d have shelter during the winter,” Thompson said.
He’d like to see that become a less common strategy.
“If you can help that person, get them into stable housing, get them some help and some work, hopefully some other pieces can fall into place,” he said.
“The trend of homelessness could end with that person.”