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State News: Bipartisanship, Marijuana, Dirty Water

State Leaders Call for Bipartisanship

A new era of divided government began Monday at the state Capitol with the inauguration of the state Assembly and Senate. Republican legislators continue to hold power in both legislative chambers, with a 63-36 majority in the Assembly and a 19-14 majority in the Senate. However, the GOP will not have a member of its party in the governor’s office for the first time since 2011.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said GOP leadership moved Wisconsin forward, and he defended recent changes that limit the power of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

“There are some who will want us to take a back seat and allow the new governor to drive the car alone, but that isn’t going to happen,” Vos said.

The speaker said lawmakers will work for bipartisan cooperation with the new governor.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, also called for bipartisanship. “Too often, our Legislature is characterized by division and debate within this hall,” Fitzgerald said. “Today, let us be united by our shared vision of making Wisconsin a better place to work, live and raise a family.”

But few concrete examples of where they might cooperate were offered, and GOP leaders suggested some of Evers’ priorities could be non-starters in the Legislature.

Fitzgerald told the Associated Press that he didn’t agree with Evers’ plan to call for an increase to Wisconsin’s minimum wage. He also said Republicans who have never experienced divided government need to be prepared for the process to slow down.

The biggest task ahead for lawmakers in the new session will be passing the next state budget, which is due June 30. Finding a solution to Wisconsin’s road-funding challenges will likely be a major sticking point in negotiations.

Brown County Receives $20 Million Federal Road Grant

Brown County applied for and received a nearly $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It is the county’s largest federal road grant to date. The money will be used to build an interchange at Highway 29 and Highway VV. Highway 29 is a main east-west roadway leading to and from Green Bay.    

Cole Runge, Brown County’s principal urban planner, said the area is building up, and safety is of concern.

“We’re beginning to urbanize in that area, and this project is actually the final component of a project that has been going on for almost 20 years, which is the conversion of the Highway 29 corridor in Brown County from an expressway to a freeway,” Runge said.

Runge said expressways have cross traffic, whereas freeways have on and off ramps and are largely considered to be safer. Highway 29 is often used by school buses and trucks from area businesses. The area is also seeing an increase in residential properties.

The nearby villages of Hobart and Howard will each pay $3.2 million toward the project, and Brown County will chip in $1.5 million.

In order to get the full federal funding, work must be completed by 2025.

Almost Half of Wells Tested in Southwest Wisconsin Contaminated

A survey of private wells in southwestern Wisconsin found almost half had unsafe contamination levels. Researchers randomly selected 301 wells for testing in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties in November. Forty-two percent of the wells exceeded standards for bacteria or nitrate, a compound linked to a variety of health problems.

Katie Abbott, Iowa County conservationist, said 34 percent tested positive for coliform bacteria.

“Coliform is not an illness-causing bacteria on its own,” Abbott said. “It’s an indication that there could be other things in the water as well.”

Four percent of the wells had E. coli, a bacteria that can cause illness. Sixteen percent of the wells had nitrate levels above the state standard of 10 parts per million.

The sampling is part of a two-year study on groundwater quality commissioned by the three counties, called the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology study, or SWIGG.

Ken Bradbury, state geologist and a principal investigator on the study, said there are more than 10,800 private wells in the region.

“It’s probably the largest synoptic – which means all taken at the same time – water-quality sample that’s ever been done in those three counties,” Bradbury said.

Officials Discuss Medical Marijuana in Wisconsin

Legalizing medical marijuana may be gaining ground in public opinion in Wisconsin and around the country, but even with wins at the ballot box, it probably won’t be happening anytime soon. The momentum, however, is hard to ignore.   

“I think stopping the marijuana-reform train is impossible in this country,” said Michael Miller, an addiction psychiatrist at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc and past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “We’ve seen what the public says it wants.”

Eighteen referendums related to marijuana were on the ballots in various parts of the state in November. Four were non-binding referendums on recreational marijuana, but the bulk of the advisory questions asked voters whether the state should approve medical marijuana.

“I think our No. 1 responsibility is to alleviate human suffering,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, who, along with Miller, spoke Tuesday at a Wisconsin Health News event at the Madison Club.

Taylor and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, have unsuccessfully pushed for medical marijuana.

Although the state doesn’t have medical marijuana, lawmakers have approved cannabidiol (CBD), a compound in marijuana that has been helpful in alleviating seizures in children. Proponents of cannabidiol say it can also be helpful for adults with chronic pain.

CBD oil has taken off, being marketed in everything from hand lotion to beer to energy drinks.

Sen. Pat Testin, R-Stevens Point, co-authored the bill legalizing hemp. When asked Tuesday about the chances of medical marijuana becoming legal in Wisconsin, he was cautious.

“Politically there are still a lot of hurdles that we have to jump. But I do see from my own perspective an openness to explore options,” said Testin, who was on the panel and revealed how a family member smoked marijuana to alleviate symptoms of bone cancer.

Both he and Taylor said medical marijuana might reduce the use of prescription pain pills, which has led to an opioid epidemic.

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