MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Assembly Republicans introduced a bill Friday to prevent a backlog of untested sexual assault kits, signaling the party has abandoned two previous proposals championed by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
The move all but ensures the Legislature will accomplish nothing on the issue before its two-year session ends in March, depriving Kaul of a major political victory. The attorney general made testing a major campaign issue in 2018, and he called the new bill a “charade.”
“The legislation circulated today is transparently intended to allow Assembly Republicans to pretend to support legislation that can help prevent another backlog, when in reality they are preventing such legislation … from becoming law,” Kaul said.
Tens of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits in the U.S. have gone untested: Sometimes prosecutors decide cases are too weak to pursue, or victims refuse to cooperate.
Victim advocates have been pushing for years to get the kits tested in hopes of identifying serial offenders. Kaul’s predecessor, Republican Brad Schimel, starting testing around 4,000 kits in Wisconsin in 2017. Kaul hammered Schimel during the campaign for dragging his feet on the testing. The issue gained traction and helped Kaul win office.
Republican state Rep. David Steffen of Green Bay introduced a bill in May that would create new kit submission and storage deadlines. He also signed onto another Republican bill that would require the Department of Justice to create a database for tracking kit submissions.
Kaul has been advocating for both bills for months. The Republican-controlled Senate passed both bills overwhelmingly in October. But Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, chairman of the Assembly health committee, has refused to hear the measures. Last week he told reporters he didn’t see any “hair-on-fire emergency” to get them passed.
Steffen stepped back into the fray Friday with a substitute bill. It largely mirrors the kit submission protocols and tracking requirements in the original bills but goes much further.
The measure also would create a sexual assault victim bill of rights and mandate police notify immigration authorities of anyone in the country illegally arrested or convicted of sexual assault. And it would allow a student who has been sexually assaulted by another student or teacher to enter the state’s school choice programs regardless of eligibility. The programs offer state subsidies to offset private school tuition.
The immigration notification and school choice provisions almost certainly will be non-starters with Democrats. Republicans don’t need them to pass the bill — the GOP controls both the Assembly and Senate — but the language promises to only deepen Democrat resentment.
Steffen said student sexual assault victims deserve a chance to attend class elsewhere. As for the immigration clause, he said the notification requirement is meant to deter people in the country illegally from sexually assaulting other immigrants who fear that reporting such an attack puts them at risk of deportation.
Asked why he introduced the bill when the original proposals have already cleared the Senate, he said those bills weren’t going anywhere in the Assembly. He said “various individuals” opposed parts but that he’s worked with so many people on the bills he didn’t remember who or what they opposed.
Sanfelippo said the new bill is much better than the proposals Kaul was pushing. He scheduled a hearing on the bill for Wednesday.
The bill still faces a long road after the public hearing. The health committee will have to schedule a vote and the bill would have to clear a full floor session to get out of the Assembly. The Senate process is identical. All that would have to happen before the end of March.
Sanfelippo insisted there’s plenty of time and took another jab at Kaul.
“The attorney general’s been sounding the alerts, but he spent most of his adult life outside the state of Wisconsin and he doesn’t know how we work here,” he said.
Kaul grew up in Fond du Lac. He attended Yale and Stanford and worked in the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore before moving back to Wisconsin in 2014.