A bill that would increase penalties for those who beat up road builders is instigating a fight over offering special treatment to specific workers.
“We’ve created more and more special classes of protection for public workers,” said state Rep. Frederick Kessler, D-Milwaukee. “You can certainly argue the case for police officers and probably for firefighters, but
I’m not sure you really want to keep breaking these groups up. Then you’re just treating people differently than others.”
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine, and state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, are ushering bills through their respective houses to change from a misdemeanor to a felony the classification of battery against a municipal roadworker or a contractor hired by a municipality. The primary difference is a jail sentence increased from nine months to up to three and a half years.
Norway Town Chairwoman Jean Jacobson brought the issue to the attention of Vos and Lehman after a
December incident in which Scott Laux, a municipal worker plowing Church Street in Norway, exited his vehicle to suggest a motorist move his car to avoid getting a ticket. The motorist, Jacobson said, grabbed a metal object; hit Laux, forcing him to the ground; kicked Laux and “beat him to a pulp.”
Laux survived the incident.
“The worker didn’t fight back because he was afraid he’d lose his job” Jacobson said. “(The motorist) received a small fine, basically the equivalent of a slap on the hand.
“For whatever reason, emotions run high and guys working on road projects, from flag holders to construction guys, are kicked, spit at and hollered at in fits of road rage.”
Joe Strohl, lobbyist for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, said although motorist frustration is a part of roadwork, he is not sure how often that leads to violence.
Local 139 wants its workers protected and generally backs the bill, Strohl said, but the union has not formally registered support of the bill. He said it could be a tough political fight.
“You’re singling out one class of worker,” he said. “It gets into an argument of: Well, is attacking a postal worker worse than attacking a UPS delivery guy?”
The Assembly bill received a hearing from the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice last month, and Vos said the bill could be voted on later this month. The Senate bill has not had a public hearing.
Jacobson said she is surprised by the lack of commitment to the bill.
“It seemed like a no-brainer,” she said. “But they asked if there were several cases of this kind of incident, and, at the time, I had not done a lot of research with other counties or towns.”
Ronald Chamberlain, highway commissioner for Adams County, said there have been incidents in his area.
He said municipal crews were clearing trees from a roadside area in 2003 when a resident started yelling at them to stop. The argument escalated, and when local law enforcement came to intervene, the resident shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Michael Shannon, Chamberlain said.
“Anything that can be done for protection is a good thing,” he said.
State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, said he will support the bill because road builders and municipal workers deserve added protections.
“People know that if you hurt a police officer, there’s going to be trouble,” he said. “What we have to hope is that (this bill) gets publicized well enough to let anyone thinking about hurting a worker get a message.”
Kessler called Laux’s attack outrageous and said it and similar incidents should never happen. But he said the bill could stall due to battery case statistics and trepidation over classifying who receives extra protection.
“Nobody’s shown me anything that makes me think you’re going to see a big difference,” Kessler said.