Assembly has packed agenda for final session

The dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol (file photo).
The dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol (file photo).

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Among the issues the Wisconsin Assembly planned to take up on its final planned session day of the year Thursday were whether to create sanctions for failing schools, restrict early voting hours, or set new requirements for lawsuits brought by people sickened by asbestos exposure.

The Assembly was also wrestling with whether to approve a bill passed by the Senate this week and backed by Gov. Scott Walker that would make chemotherapy drugs in pill form that could be taken at home more affordable to cancer patients.

Debate over the packed agenda, which included 40 other bills, was expected to go into the night and early morning hours Friday. Anything the Assembly doesn't pass is dead for the year. Bills must pass both the Senate and Assembly in identical form before being sent to the governor.

One of the biggest questions facing the Assembly was whether to go along with the more limited Senate version of the school accountability bill, which simply requires all schools that take public money to have performance data and other information included on report cards for the public to see.

Assembly Republicans were pushing a more expansive version, which puts sanctions in place that could lead to closing failing public schools or kicking private and religious schools out of the voucher program, where taxpayer funding is used to pay for tuition.

The Senate has no appetite for the more expansive version, Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said this week. That means if the Assembly passes that version, no accountability bill will pass this year.

Walker said Thursday that he was concerned that no bill will pass this year, but he was optimistic that lawmakers would reach a deal.

Walker, public and private school representatives, lawmakers and others have been working for three years on an accountability bill but so far have been unable to reach agreement.

The private school voucher program was expanded statewide this year, with enrollment outside of Milwaukee and Racine capped at 500 students. That grows to 1,000 next year, and having an accountability measurement will help those arguing to further grow the program.

Democratic opponents of vouchers also want accountability measures so the performance of students in private schools who take taxpayer money can be compared with public schools.

The Assembly was also scheduled to take up:

- Early voting: In-person absentee voting would no longer be allowed past 7 p.m. or on weekends under a bill Republicans are pushing but that opponents say is an unconstitutional attempt to make it more difficult for minorities in Wisconsin's largest cities to vote. In-person absentee voting is permitted in the two weeks leading up to an election, but the bill would limit it to no more than 45 hours a week and not on weekends or before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. The heavily Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee utilized expanded hours in 2012 when President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin on his way to re-election.

- Asbestos lawsuits: People who have suffered from asbestos exposure would have to reveal how many businesses they plan to sue and would be required to seek money from asbestos trust funds before taking anyone to court under a Republican-backed bill. Opponents, including several veterans groups, argue that requirements in the measure will deny and delay justice to asbestos victims. But supporters say it's designed to stop people from double-dipping and seeking damages from both businesses and trust funds in order to maximize their awards.

- Cancer drugs: Chemotherapy drugs in pill form, which patients can take at home, would be more affordable under a bill that passed the Senate on a 30-2 vote and that Walker has said he hopes the Assembly passes without any changes. But Republicans, fearful that it amounts to a mandate on health insurance companies that would drive up costs, are considering making changes that could jeopardize the bill's chances.