Until very nearly the end, it was one of the slowest years in decades for new bills being enacted into law, but in the past several weeks Gov. Tony Evers has let the ink flow, signing scores of bills.
The fast-growing hemp industry and young front-yard entrepreneurs with lemonade stands came out big winners. Given that both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Republicans, virtually all the bills had bipartisan support.
In a span of several weeks, the governor signed nearly 50 pieces of legislation into law, ranging from hemp to lemonade stands to telehealth to transportation aids to felony trespass. Some of the bills were economically and environmentally significant, such as making the hemp industry permanent and reforming the state's wetland mitigation architecture; some were important symbolically, such as allowing lemonade stands on private property without a permit; and some were controversial, such as a felony trespass bill that environmentalists have attacked as allowing energy companies to stifle protest and discriminate against minorities.
Economically, the hemp-growing legislation was perhaps the most significant. The Growing Opportunities Act not only makes technical changes to make the state compliant with federal law, it also makes the pilot hemp-growing program permanent. As the governor pointed out, industrial hemp is used in a variety of consumer products, from sunglasses to food to 3-D printing and more.
"From textiles, to recycling and bioplastics, to industrial materials, hemp provides endless opportunities to Wisconsin farmers who are looking for new markets to enter, which is why interest in growing and producing hemp in Wisconsin has skyrocketed in the last year," Evers said. "I was proud to sign this collaborative, bipartisan bill into law to ensure the continued success of our hemp program and the many new opportunities hemp provides to Wisconsin farmers."
Evers also signed a technical fix to the state's supplemental transportation aid program to allow the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to award $2.5 million of allocated aid to 144 towns across the state.
A third notable bill that was hailed on both sides of the aisle, and is important to rural areas such as the Northwoods, will expand health care access via telehealth services. Specifically, Medicaid will now provide reimbursements for more remote patient care.
"Wisconsin residents deserve access to quality health care, regardless of where they live in our state," Evers said. "Technology is one way to help folks get connected to the care they need, especially for residents in rural communities where they are struggling with provider shortages."
Administration officials say telehealth expansion will be especially important for people who struggle with substance use disorders, who can now receive treatment remotely. With more than a million Medicaid members in Wisconsin, the changes will significantly increase access to medical and behavioral health care, they say.
Among other things, Medicaid will now treat telehealth services the same as in-person services. The law also ensures that Medicaid reimburses for the same telehealth services that Medicare covers, and allows patients to receive telehealth services at home or at school, or other non-clinical locations.
Finally, the bill removes telehealth provider certification requirements, which will expand access to behavioral health and substance disorder use services for Medicaid patients.
A cavalcade of new laws
The parade of legislation also included a bipartisan bill preventing discrimination against individuals with disabilities at polling locations. The new law requires accommodations to be made for individuals with developmental or physical disabilities that affect verbal speech and for individuals who communicate non-verbally.
"We have to make sure voting is fair and accessible, and that everyone has the opportunity to cast their vote at the ballot box," Evers said.
The bill creates an exemption for a voter to state their name and address to an election official before being permitted to vote for individuals who communicate non-verbally and those with developmental or physical disabilities that affect verbal speech. It also allows an individual to present their personal information via written document or by delegating the task to another person.
Environmentally, Evers signed a wetland mitigation bill that makes several changes to the requirements for wetland mitigation banks. Those include changes to locational criteria, the schedule for releasing credits, mitigation bank documents, and rule-making authority regarding financial assistance requirements for mitigation banks.
Closer to home - like in the front yard - parents and children alike will no longer be terrified that law enforcement will swoop in and shut down their kid's lemonade stands after Evers signed a bill allowing minors to operate temporary stands without licensure from the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.
The bill also prohibits municipalities from enacting ordinances or adopting resolutions that prohibit stands operated by a minor, or requiring a license, permit, or fee for any stand operated by a minor.
In a move praised by consumer advocates, the governor signed a law permitting gas pumps to dispense gasoline-ethanol fuel blends containing no more than 10% or 15% ethanol, and gasoline containing no ethanol, through the same fueling nozzle and hose.
Another bill ensures that nonprofit agencies, and their volunteer health care providers, that provide services to individuals on Medicaid have liability insurance through the state by allowing them to participate in the Volunteer Health Care Provider Program, if the individuals served are primarily individuals experiencing homelessness.
Yet another bill expands eligibility for educational loan assistance programs administered by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents for physicians, dentists, physician assistants, nurse-midwives, nurse practitioners, and dental hygienists who provide care in free or charitable clinics.
Not without controversy
Some bills the governor signed were more controversial than others, with perhaps the most contentious being the so-called felony trespass bill.
The bill makes it a felony to trespass on property owned by companies that operate, among other things, a gas, oil, petroleum, or refined petroleum product or delivery system for those products, such as a pipeline. State law already provides for felony trespass on the property of energy providers, but pipeline companies and other delivery infrastructure firms were not previously included in the definition of an energy provider.
Supporters argue that the legislation is necessary to curb vandalism that can disrupt the delivery of energy resources and to protect worker and public safety. Opponents say it's just an outright effort to suppress legitimate protest.
Various tribal leaders had also objected to the legislation, saying it could create a disparate effect on Native Americans and other racial minorities. Simple trespass now becomes a felony on certain private properties, they said, which will allow law enforcement agencies and corporations to target Native Americans and other minorities, with severe and life-changing legal consequences.
Evers took note of the dissension.
"Today, I signed Assembly Bill 426, which aims to ensure each energy provider is treated the same under the law while still protecting the right to exercise free speech and the right to assembly," he said. "However, I did not sign this bill without any consternation or objection."
Those concerns particularly focus on tribal rights, Evers said.
"I have said - and reaffirm today - that our tribal nations deserve to have a voice in the policies and legislation that affect indigenous persons and our state," he said. "Thus, while I am signing this bill today, I expect that moving forward members of the Legislature will engage in meaningful dialogue and consultation with Wisconsin's tribal nations before developing and advancing policies that directly or indirectly affect our tribal nations and indigenous persons in Wisconsin."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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