State News: Walker Appointees, Fox River, Toddler Care

Supreme Court Sides with Republicans in Walker Appointees Dispute

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has sided with Republicans in a preliminary dispute over 82 Scott Walker appointees who were confirmed by Republicans in December’s lame-duck session of the Legislature.

The 4-3 order handed down on Tuesday by the court’s conservative majority wasn’t the final say in the lame-duck lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. But the court found that all of the former Gov. Scott Walker appointees – including those whose appointments were rescinded by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers – can return to work while the appeal of the case proceeds.

Dane County Judge Richard Niess ruled on March 21 that the entire lame-duck session was unlawful because the state constitution doesn’t permit the Legislature to meet in what’s known as “extraordinary session.”

A day after Niess’ ruling, Evers rescinded all 82 Walker appointees whom Republicans confirmed during the lame-duck session. Although Evers later reappointed most of those people to the same jobs, he didn’t rehire other Walker picks for key spots on the Public Service Commission and the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Days later, a court of appeals stayed – or temporarily halted – Niess’ ruling, but in a subsequent ruling, it found that Evers was in his right to block the appointments before the stay was in effect.

The state Supreme Court disagreed, finding that Niess should have stayed his initial ruling while the case was being appealed. The court ruled that removing the Walker appointees from their jobs could harm them personally, harm the boards and commissions on which they sit and harm the public.

Bill Would End Use of Personal-Conviction Immunization Waivers

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is calling for Wisconsin to end personal-conviction waivers for opting out of vaccinations. Wisconsin is one of 18 states that allows parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for personal reasons. Other states only allow medical or religious waivers.

State figures show the number of unvaccinated children entering kindergarten with personal-conviction waivers in Wisconsin has been rising and is now above the national average.

The bill’s sponsor, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), said Wisconsin’s policies are out of step with the rest of the country, especially amid a measles outbreak that’s reached 22 states.

“It’s just a matter of time, given the declining vaccination rate, that we have our own public-health crisis in Wisconsin,” Hintz said. “So it’s time for the state to be proactive and do everything possible to get that number up so we have herd immunity and can protect folks.”

The bill also has support from Gov. Tony Evers, who said Tuesday, “We just have to understand there are some requirements the state must have to keep everybody safe.”

And it’s backed by a number of public-health groups, including the Wisconsin Medical Society.

Fox River Lock System Seeks to Install Fish Barrier

The Appleton Lock, north of where the Fox River’s navigation authority hopes to install an electric fish barrier. Photo by Patty Murray/WPR.

The Fox River System Navigational Authority is seeking approval from the state’s Department of Natural Resources to install an electric barrier at a lock on the Fox River in Menasha. If approved, it would be the first in Wisconsin.

The authority is asking to put the device in to keep out the invasive round goby. The small, bottom-feeding fish is native to Eastern Europe but is now in the Great Lakes. The fear is that the fish could migrate from Wisconsin’s Fox River into Lake Winnebago and the Wolf River watershed.

The Menasha lock connects the Fox to Winnebago and was closed to boaters in 2015 to stop the gobies’ progression.

The authority’s CEO, Jeremy Cords, said the electric barrier would allow boaters access to waterways and keep the fish out of Lake Winnebago and the Wolf River watershed.

The device pulses direct current into the water and forces fish to turn back instead of going through. Because gobies are bottom-feeders, the system would not affect native fish that swim in shallower water.

Cords said the barriers are effective in other countries and across the United States. “Basically all the way around us – Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois – they all have multiple barriers,” Cords said. “Wisconsin does not have any. This will be the first barrier in the state.”

The project needs DNR approval. The navigational authority would pay the estimated $2.5 million to $3 million cost.

Grant Received to Improve Infant and Toddler Care

Early childhood education advocates and experts will soon team up with community leaders to devise policy recommendations aimed at improving the availability and quality of infant and toddler care in Wisconsin, thanks to a new planning grant. Wisconsin is one of 11 states awarded $100,000 by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative to “develop an ambitious, prenatal-to-age-three policy agenda and action plan,” according to a press release.

Ruth Schmidt, executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, which submitted the proposal, said she expects the coalition to develop “very tight” policy recommendations and to later apply for a $1 million implementation grant from the same source.

“It allows us to actually dig into community concerns and parent concerns as a way to inform policy,” said Schmidt. “If we didn’t have that money, our ability to work that network and do that would be greatly limited.”

Child care is in “crisis,” Schmidt said.

Parents have difficulty finding child-care centers – more than 54 percent of Wisconsinites live in a child-care desert – and centers have difficulty finding and retaining staff.

Some agencies have tried to partner with organizations in and outside of child care to solve these problems, but their efforts are often small-scale and regional. The Pritzker grant will allow for deeper and wider collaboration aimed at addressing these issues at the state level, according to Schmidt.

“This isn’t about just expanding care,” she said. “It has to be high-quality care. It really just puts us on this course and moves us forward with finally tackling this issue as a state.”

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