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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Senate Votes to Change Civil Service System, Strip Funding from Planned Parenthood

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Justin W. Kern
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Several items stirred debates that lasted for hours

The two votes fell along party lines, with majority Republicans prevailing. Their overhaul of Wisconsin's century-old civil service system would, among other changes, eliminate hiring exams for applicants and protections for more experienced workers, create merit bonuses and centralize hiring decisions within the governor's Dept. of Administration.

Supporters insist Wisconsin must have more flexibility to quickly hire, promote and fire public workers. Opponents claim the change will open the door to cronyism.

The Senate also spent hours Wednesday debating and finally approving two bills that would cripple the group Planned Parenthood. One would reduce the amount of money Planned Parenthood could collect for dispensing birth control and other prescriptions. Federal law requires drug makers to offer clinics a deal; then they submit higher reimbursements to Medicaid. The state plan would limit reimbursements for Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions.

The second bill would require Wisconsin to apply for federal Title X money and then distribute it to groups that don’t perform abortions. Title X is funding for family planning and related health services, although the money cannot be used for abortions. Planned Parenthood has been Wisconsin’s Title X recipient for years.

Many of the arguments senators offered were familiar ones. For example, Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga of Delafield said he supports both bills for an overarching reason.

“I will just stand up and say, this is a consistent stance, a consistent stance with where I have always been, where many others in this body have always been and that is, we are going to protect life. Now there is a fundamental disagreement with where does that begin. I believe that it begins at conception, and I believe that one of the cornerstones of the Declaration of Independence and what our Constitution is drafted around is the protection of life. I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and I need to do everything I can as a legislator to protect. Both of these bills, I feel, move the ball. It does not fix the problem, so we will continue to work extremely hard to resolve this issue,”  Kapenga testified.

Democratic Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee said she finds the GOP plan hypocritical and probably unconstitutional.

“We have no right to dictate our faith on another – that’s what the Constitution says. And what we have is individuals who are standing up, and in some pretense of protection of life, there’s something in judging that is going on. There’s something in unconstitutional laws being made, because they are being narrowed to hurt one entity. I wish we were consistent with protection of life in believing that people should have access to food. I wish we were consistent in protection of life in believing that people should have access to health care. I wish that we were being consistent because everything that we could do to protect life, I would argue, that even though some may stand and say it, it is not the reality. I guess it depends on the life,” Taylor said.

One other Senate vote Wednesday that fell along party lines, is a plan to expand the instances in which authorities can conduct strip searches of suspects. Until now, law enforcement could search arrestees only if they would remain in jail with others, for more than 12 hours. The bill eliminates the 12-hour rule. The decision comes just days after the Milwaukee Common Council approved a five-million dollar settlement with 74 Black men who accused Milwaukee police of conducting illegal strip and body cavity searches. Bill supporters insist it would better protect guards and inmates.

Among items the Senate advanced Wednesday that did not fall strictly along party lines:

-- a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating the office of Wisconsin State Treasurer

-- tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers (for example, a fourth offense would become a felony carrying a three-year prison term),

-- a bill to better track prescription drugs, as a means of fighting eventual heroin addictions

-- a bill allowing people to carry concealed switchblades and knives

-- a plan allowing hunters to wear fluorescent pink rather than blaze orange