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Wisconsin Senate to end with votes on youth prison, schools

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Senate prepared to wrap up Wisconsin’s two-year legislative session Tuesday with votes on a bipartisan proposal to build a new juvenile prison and Republican-backed attempts, most likely headed for vetoes, to break up the Milwaukee school district and extend the state’s voucher school program.

The Assembly met for the final time last week and the Senate planned to finish its work with a marathon day Tuesday. Lawmakers will then largely shift their priorities to campaigning for the fall election.

Up for final approval Tuesday was a bipartisan proposal to borrow $42 million to build a new youth prison in Milwaukee County, the latest step in a years-long effort to close the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in northern Wisconsin.

The prison in Irma has been dogged by allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, witness intimidation and record tampering. An FBI probe in 2015 ended with no charges filed but subsequent legal settlements with inmates’ families have cost the state Department of Corrections more than $25 million.

The Legislature four years ago voted to close the prison. But lawmakers never came through with the money for a replacement.

Under the bill, Lincoln Hills would become a minimum-security adult prison. The proposal doesn’t specify where in Milwaukee County the new youth prison would be opened  but mandates construction would be contingent on local officials’ approval.

Senate adoption would send the proposal to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who has deemed it “a step in the right direction.” The Assembly passed the bill unanimously last week.

The Milwaukee school district bill calls for dividing the district into four to eight smaller districts beginning in 2024. Republicans say the change would increase accountability and lead to better student performance. Opponents, including the state teachers union, argue there’s no guarantees the plan will lead to improved student achievement.

Senate adoption would send the bill to Evers, who almost certainly will veto it. He said Monday that the bill was “illogical” and no data shows it would help students.

Another bill up for final approval — one that’s also almost certainly headed for an Evers veto — would extend the state’s voucher-school program by eliminating income limits for applicants. The voucher program provides participants with state subsidies to pay for tuition at private schools. Republicans insist the program gives struggling students options; opponents say the state can’t afford to pay for both public and private schools.

Other notable Republican-backed bills on the Senate agenda, all of which are likely to be vetoed, include:

— A plan to end legal immunity for University of Wisconsin officials who interfere with free-speech rights on campus. The proposal is designed to clear the way for conservative speakers on campus.

— Proposals to allow parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates; force schools to offer in-person instruction and end requirements that unvaccinated government workers submit to weekly COVID-19 tests.

— A bill that would force UW System schools to use objective criteria for admissions. The proposal would outlaw criteria based on race, national origin or religion. The bill’s supporters say UW’s current criteria are subjective and opaque, providing the public with no way to determine what standards an applicant must meet to be accepted. System officials say they don’t test applicants on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion.

— A proposal that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in churches on private school grounds. Republicans say the bill would help churchgoers and security guards defend themselves from attack. Opponents, including the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, maintain the bill would lead only to a proliferation of guns, which undermines a message of peace.

— A bill that would enshrine the police’s ability to use no-knock warrants in state law. The national debate over no-knock warrants, which allow police to storm residences without any warning, has been growing in recent years. Proponents maintain police need the element of surprise; opponents contend they lead to violent confrontations with residents. Just last month police killed Amir Locke of Minneapolis after they entered his apartment unannounced and he reached for a gun.

The Senate was also to pass a constitutional amendment that would strip the governor of his ability to spend federal aid and hand that power to the Legislature. Constitutional amendments must be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and a statewide referendum.

Senate approval on Tuesday would mark the first session the proposal has passed. The next two-year session begins in January.

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