MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday quietly signed into law a bill that critics say would delay and deny justice to those who seek damages in court after falling ill from exposure to asbestos.
Walker also signed a bill limiting in-person absentee voting to no later than 7 p.m. in the two weeks leading up to an election, and no weekend voting. Both bills were among 30 that Walker signed privately in Milwaukee before flying to Las Vegas to speak Saturday at a meeting that’s attracting potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates.
The asbestos bill, which was introduced last year and which is opposed by veterans groups and Democrats, has been one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the two-year legislative session. Records from the Government Accountability Board show that last year alone, supporters and opponents spent nearly 2,000 hours lobbying lawmakers about the bill. Records for this year haven’t been filed yet.
The new law requires plaintiffs who have suffered from asbestos exposure to reveal how many businesses their attorneys plan to sue. They also would have to go after money from an asbestos trust before they could sue for more in court.
Proponents, including Wisconsin’s chamber of commerce and Republican sponsors, argued that the changes were needed to prevent people from filing multiple claims against both trust funds set up to pay victims of asbestos exposure as well as individual businesses.
“Governor Walker signed this law to ensure transparency in the lawsuit process and stop trial lawyers from double dipping,” said Walker’s spokeswoman Laurel Patrick. “Preventing double dipping will help make sure there will be resources available for the truly injured down the road.”
Veterans groups and trial attorneys were among those who lobbied most forcefully against the bill, saying a disproportionate number of people sickened by asbestos are service members.
Jason Johns, a lobbyist for three veterans groups who urged Walker to veto the measure last week, issued a statement expressing disappointment that the governor signed it, saying it would be devastating to veterans.
“Many of our members recognize the great things that the governor and the state Legislature have done for veterans this legislative session but unfortunately all of the good will now be overshadowed by the ignoring of our pleas to stop this devastating legislation to our veterans and their families from becoming law,” Johns said.
He represents the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Asbestos, a building material linked with cancer and other health problems, has been the subject of lawsuits awarding billions of dollars in damages. As the health concerns became clearer and the number of lawsuits swelled, companies forced into bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation transferred their assets and liabilities to trusts established to pay current and future asbestos victims.
At least 100 companies have gone into bankruptcy in part from liabilities tied to asbestos, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report. There are 60 asbestos trusts, with about $37 billion in assets, according to the GAO report.
The Senate passed the bill 17-16, with all Democrats and Republican Sen. Dale Schultz opposing it. The Assembly passed it 55-38, with all Democrats against it and all Republicans supporting it.
Other bills Walker signed will:
– disallow early voting on weekends leading up to an election and permit it only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Walker vetoed a portion of the bill limiting total hours to 45 in each of the two weeks before an election, meaning it could be offered up to 55 hours each week. Walker also vetoed out state funding for local election officials to pay for early voting, saying that cost has historically not been the state’s responsibility.
“Now, the bill will establish more uniform voting hours across the state during the current early voting period,” said Patrick, the governor’s spokeswoman.
Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said the law would make it more difficult for minorities in Milwaukee and Madison to vote and likely would be challenged in court.
– allow lobbyists to start giving campaign donations seven weeks earlier in election years than previously allowed.
– allow poll workers to come from anywhere in the county where they live, rather than just from their municipality or ward.
– require the state to guarantee up to $2,500 in loans to purchase propane or other heating supplies.