by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
January 18, 2023

Republican Senators approved two resolutions during their first floor session Tuesday setting up ballot questions  to go to voters in April. One of the measures creates an advisory referendum asking voters if they want to impose  work requirements on people receiving welfare benefits; the other is a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the way judges consider bail. Republican lawmakers also rejected Democratic calls for a voter referendum on Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. 

Putting hot-button questions to voters on the spring ballot could influence the outcome of a competitive election for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court that will decide the balance of the Court, which is currently a conservative 4-3 majority. Both the bail issue and the question about enforcing work requirements to receive welfare could help to drive conservative turnout.

The advisory referendum — introduced by Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) and co-sponsored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) — would ask voters whether “able-bodied, childless adults” should be “required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits.” The referendum, which is nonbinding and wouldn’t do anything if approved by voters, passed 22-10 with Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) joining Republicans.

“It’s so important to show the support of Wisconsin voters that if you’re going to receive workforce benefits that you need to apply for work,” LeMahieu said. “An able-bodied adult should be working.” 

Wisconsin already implements work requirements for people who receive Foodshare — or food stamp — benefits and there are work search requirements for those receiving unemployment benefits. Evers waived work requirements for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Republicans reinstated the requirements in 2021. 

But LeMahieu said there aren’t work requirements for people on Medicaid and that’s something lawmakers could look into changing. 

Wisconsin does not currently enforce work requirements to receive Medicaid benefits because the Biden Administration revoked a policy in 2021 that allowed states to implement these requirements. 

Dems push abortion question

Gov. Tony Evers alongside Democratic lawmakers offered an alternative referendum just hours before the floor session, renewing their calls to ask voters about Wisconsin’s abortion ban. 

“Our attempt with the substitute here is to, once again, give the people of Wisconsin the chance to talk about their belief about abortion and to advise the Legislature,” Evers said during a press conference in the state Capitol. “That said, the present referendum that the Republicans have laid out is about something that already exists. It’s advising something that already exists, so I think theirs is frankly ridiculous.” 

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) joined Evers at press conference Tuesday morning, saying the Republican referendum “simply attacks low-income Wisconsinites and is borne out of turnout considerations for their base in the upcoming spring election.” 

“Republicans didn’t bother to gauge the public’s opinion when they originally fast-tracked pieces of legislation to increase work requirements. There were no advisory referendums and no seeking of public input,” Agard continued, “not until now, several years after these bills became law. Republicans are looking for a public pat on the back for legislation they enacted years ago.” 

Democratic lawmakers proposed an amendment during the session that would have replaced the welfare work requirement question with one that asked voters “Shall Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion law be repealed and the constitutional rights guaranteed under Roe v. Wade be restored?” 

“You all know as well as we do that if we put this on the spring ballot, it would pass overwhelmingly,” Agard said during floor debate. “You all know that if people were asked clearly if they want to restore abortion rights in Wisconsin, they will respond with a resounding ‘Hell yes.’”

Republican lawmakers swiftly shut the amendment down.

Constitutional amendment on bail

Senators also voted 23-9, with Pfaff and Sen. Robert Wirch (D – Somers) joining all Republicans, to approve a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the requirement that bail be set only to ensure that people charged with crimes appear in court. The amendment, if passed by the Assembly on Thursday, would go to voters for approval in April. 

Republicans argue the amendment will give judges more flexibility in setting bail by allowing them to consider other factors in violent offender cases — including defendants’ past convictions as well as the need to protect the public from bodily harm. 

Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), who authored the Senate version of the bill, said assumptions were wrong that the bail amendment was about the 2023 Supreme Court race or in reaction to the case of Darrell Brooks, who drove his SUV into the Waukesha Christmas Parade while out on bail in 2021, killing and injuring dozens of people. The incident triggered calls for bail reform and for the resignation of Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. Wanggaard said he started working on the legislation seven years ago because the system needed to be fixed.

“The proposal is about one thing: fixing Wisconsin’s broken bail system. Anyone taking an honest look at Wisconsin’s bail system knows that it’s broken and needs to be fixed,” Wanggard said during the floor session. 

Democratic opponents said there were better ways of addressing the problems in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system than a constitutional amendment.

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) criticized the policy because of its lack of definitions for terms like “serious harm.” She also said the criminal justice system needs more resources.

“We need funding for our courts, not a change in our constitution. We need data-driven approaches, not a change in our constitution,” Taylor said. “We need prosecutors and defense attorneys and interpreters and court reporters funded for our understaffed courts.” 

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) criticized Republicans for not addressing issues currently facing Wisconsin like high grocery prices, racial disparities, staffing shortages in schools and hospitals. He said Tuesday’s floor session could indicate that Wisconsin is in for another divisive, unproductive session.

“Republicans, who took a 10-month vacation last year to campaign and who were the least active full-time legislature in the nation during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, are using their substantial power to punish poor people, abuse LGBTQ youth, worsen mass incarceration, and play political games they hope will help them achieve even more power in the April Supreme Court race,” Larson said in a statement.

The constitutional amendment and advisory referendum will go to the Assembly for consideration on Thursday. If passed, voters will see them on the April ballot.

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