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Wisconsin lawmakers take up bills to combat opioid addiction

MADISON (AP) -- Wisconsin lawmakers took up a package of bills to combat opioid addiction in a flurry of activity Thursday, two months after Gov. Scott Walker declared opioids a crisis and called a special legislative session to pass the proposals.

Republican Rep. John Nygren crafted 11 bills based on recommendations from the governor's opioid task force. The package includes proposals that would grant legal immunity to people who overdose, allow school workers to administer overdose antidotes to students and require the University of Wisconsin System to open a school where high school addicts can continue their education during recovery. Other measures would allocate $5.5 million more over the next two years for treatment programs and four additional state drug agents.

Walker called a special legislative session to pass the package on Jan. 5. The opioid proposals didn't start moving through committees until this week, even though Republicans control both houses and can pass high-priority bills in a matter of weeks. A GOP-authored right-to-work bill became law a little more than two weeks after it was introduced in 2015.

Nygren said the opioid bills are a priority and he would have liked to hold hearings sooner, but his office had to finalize bill drafts and schedule hearings with multiple committees. He said lawmakers have been consumed with digesting Walker's state budget -- the Republican governor introduced the spending plan just last month. Still, Nygren said the bills have broad bipartisan support and he expects all 11 bills will pass by April.

"Four months is pretty darn quick (for the Legislature)," Nygren said.

Committee work on the bills began Tuesday when the Senate judiciary committee held a hearing on the overdose immunity and drug agent proposals. No committee members expressed any opposition and the panel voted unanimously Thursday without discussion to move the immunity bill to the full Senate and the agent bill to the Legislature's finance committee.

The Assembly's criminal justice committee, meanwhile, held a hearing Thursday on the immunity and agent bills as well as the treatment funding proposal. Nygren told the committee that the three bills would advance his goal of saving lives, rehabilitating addicts and stopping the flow of drugs into Wisconsin.

Sarah Butler, 29, of Baraboo, implored the committee to approve the additional money for treatment. She said she was addicted to heroin for five years and the Sauk County drug court helped her beat the drug with day treatment and a sober living program. She said she's been clean for more than a year and now holds two jobs, has her own apartment and her own car.

"Drug court has changed my life," she told reporters outside the hearing. "That community wrapped their arms around me. I look at all of them, even the judge, as my supporters."

The Assembly education committee held a hearing Thursday on the recovery school and another bill that would require school personnel to receive training on mental health issues and how to refer students to treatment programs.

Nygren, of Marinette, has become the face of the Legislature's efforts to stop opioid addiction. His daughter, Cassie, has struggled with a heroin addiction for years. Inspired by her fight, he has introduced 17 bills to curb opioid abuse over the last two legislative sessions. Walker has signed all of them into law.

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