Evers: Lincoln Hills closure must be pushed back 2 years

January 30, 2019

MADISON Officials with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' administration told lawmakers Tuesday that closure of the state's troubled juvenile prisons needs to be delayed by two years, pushing back the 2021 deadline in state law that the Legislature unanimously approved last year.

Republican Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee, was part of the Tuesday meeting and said Evers officials said the original timeline "was not going to work."

"I'm flabbergasted," said Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, who worked with Schraa on the bill requiring the prisons to close. "This is just absolutely unbelievable. ... All of sudden we're just going to move this back two years, doesn't make any sense to me."

The prisons have been under criminal investigation for four years over allegations of child neglect and prisoner abuse. They are also the subject of multiple lawsuits, which motivated lawmakers and then-Gov. Scott Walker to take action last year.

The Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons are now set to close by 2021, per the law passed last year and signed by Walker. The prisons, north of Wausau in Irma, are to be replaced by smaller, regional facilities. Many are to be run by county governments.

In Tuesday's meeting, Evers administration officials told lawmakers that the timeline for closure could not be met, Schraa said. Instead, Evers will propose moving closure back by two years, to 2023, a change the Legislature would have to approve.

"The governor, members of the legislature, and stakeholders have all been consistent in saying that the state needs more time and money to safely and responsibly close Lincoln Hills," said Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff. "We are now working with stakeholders to determine a realistic timeline."

Democratic state Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, who was also in the meeting, said Evers was not trying to delay, but was being realistic about how long it would take to close and replace the juvenile prisons. Goyke said he didn't know if it would take two more years, but it could.

"It would be incredibly difficult for counties to basically have their facilities up and running by the time Lincoln Hills was scheduled to close," said Wisconsin Counties Association lobbyist Kyle Christianson. "I think everybody understands and recognizes the difficulty of the current timeline."

Christianson said it would take at least a year longer than originally planned, but he did not know how long the delay would have to be.

Schraa and Goyke said they are working on a bill that would include a new timeline.

"I want this to be done right," Schraa said.

Evers visited Lincoln Hills during his first week in office and voiced support for the closure plan, but said the $80 million allocated was not enough and more time was needed. Schraa said they didn't discuss anything related to the funding at Tuesday's meeting, which he said was attended by officials from the Department of Corrections and Evers' budget office.

The future of the prisons was a campaign issue for Evers, who vowed to tour them during his first week in office. Walker never visited any Wisconsin prison during his eight years as governor.

"They beat Gov. Walker up on this thing, left and right, every moment," Wanggaard said. "If it's (open) one day longer than it needs to be, that's too long."

Baldauff, Evers' spokeswoman, said he inherited a crisis and "now must do the work of addressing these serious problems."

Last year, the state agreed to pay $18.9 million under a settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell. Another federal lawsuit resulted in orders that the state dramatically reduce its use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles on inmates. That was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center.

An independent prison expert is monitoring prison conditions as part of that case. Earlier this month, she issued her first report, saying some progress has been made but that there still is work to do to be in compliance with the federal court order.

As of last week, there were 133 male inmates at Lincoln Hills and 15 female inmates at Copper Lake.

Wisconsin Assembly Democrats exiting redistricting lawsuit

MADISON Wisconsin Assembly Democrats are withdrawing from the federal lawsuit challenging Republican-drawn legislative districts.

The Democrats filed a motion last week in the case seeking to withdraw. That would leave a group of Democratic voters to continue the case , which is scheduled to go to trial as soon as July.

The attorney for Assembly Democrats, Lester Pines, tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a story Tuesday that they are getting out of the case because others are well equipped to continue the lawsuit. Pines also says Assembly Democrats don't have the money to continue the costly legal fight.

By dropping out now, Assembly Democrats won't have to turn over documents or answer questions to support their claims that the GOP-drawn maps hurt Democrats' ability to recruit candidates and raise money.

Rep. Gwen Moore says she has cancer, it's in remission

MADISON Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore says she has cancer and it's in remission.

The 67-year-old Moore announced Tuesday during a congressional committee hearing that she has been battling small cell lymphoma for the past 10 months.

Moore says it's a cancer she will live with for the rest of her life, but because of her high-quality health insurance "it is not a cancer I will die from."

Moore says she decided to announce that her cancer was in remission to remind members of the House Ways and Means Committee that she is a living example of the value of essential health benefits insurance coverage.

Moore has represented Milwaukee in Congress since 2005. Prior to that she served in the state Legislature for 16 years.

Republican suggests income tax cut could offset gas tax hike

MADISON Republicans would be open to raising the gas tax to pay for roads if other taxes are cut by an equal amount, a GOP co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee said Tuesday.

The signal for a potential compromise on road funding from Republican Rep. John Nygren comes before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has even submitted his two-year budget proposal to the Legislature. Evers has said he's open to raising gas taxes to pay for roads but has not put forward a specific proposal.

Transportation funding is expected to be one of the biggest budget fights, just as it was under former Gov. Scott Walker. His refusal to consider gas tax increases without corresponding cuts elsewhere delayed passage of the last state budget for three months. The budget ultimately approved relied on more borrowing to pay for roads, with no gas or fee increases.

But Nygren, speaking to reporters after a WisPolitics.com luncheon, said if Evers were willing to abide by Walker's terms to offset any gas tax increase with an equal tax cut, they might be able to reach a deal.

"It could be an offset to meet that previous pledge that Governor Walker had made, then the Republicans, I believe, would be supportive," Nygren said.

Nygren later tried to walk back his comments, saying Assembly Republicans have not met on the issue or taken a position and he was trying to describe where GOP lawmakers were in the past.

Still, Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said it was "good to hear that Rep. Nygren is open to finding common ground with the governor, because people want to see collaboration."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald also did not immediately respond.

Republicans and Evers have both proposed cutting middle class income taxes by about $340 million. But they disagree on how to pay for it. Evers wants to cap a manufacturing and agriculture tax credit program, a move Republicans oppose. Instead, Republicans want Evers to tap a budget surplus, something he has rejected.

Nygren said if taxes aren't increased elsewhere, Evers' $340 million income tax cut could provide room for Republicans to support a tax increase for roads. A 10-cent per-gallon gas tax increase would bring in about $340 million.

The current gas tax of 32.9 cents per gallon has not gone up since 2006. It is the 19th highest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation.

It's "too early to say" whether Republicans would support a gas tax increase, registration fee hike or instituting tolling to pay for roads, Nygren said. All three of those ideas have had support among some Republican lawmakers in the past.

Evers campaigned saying that "all options" were on the table to pay for roads, including raising the gas tax and then indexing it to inflation so it would automatically increase in future years without legislative approval.

Nygren's comments came after Evers' chief of staff Maggie Gau spoke at the WisPolitics.com luncheon about the governor's upcoming budget that he's to deliver in late February. Gau reiterated that the budget will focus on the issues he campaign on, including increasing funding for public schools to cover two-thirds of their costs, something Republicans support, and expanding Medicaid, a move Republicans oppose.

She also said Evers' budget may close the "dark stores" loophole that lets companies assess property taxes using the value of an empty store instead of an operational store. This typically gives stores lower assessments, which means businesses save money but costs local governments tax revenue.

Local governments have been lobbying to close the loophole, a move Evers supports. The Legislature considered a bill last session that would have prohibited assessors from comparing active stores' property values to dark stores but the measure never got a vote.


Associated Press