Wisconsin passes budget after Tesla proviso woos key senator

June 27, 2019

Republican Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Kapenga talks to reporters about his hobby of rebuilding Tesla vehicles during a news conference Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Madison, Wisconsin. Kapenga says it has nothing to do with his support for the state budget that includes a provision that would allow the electric car manufacturer to sell its vehicles directly to consumers in Wisconsin.

MADISON Wisconsin Republicans passed a state budget Wednesday after winning a key legislator's support with a provision to allow Tesla to open dealerships in the state a goal long pursued by the lawmaker, who sells rebuilt Tesla vehicles and parts.

Sen. Chris Kapenga, a self-described "gearhead," acknowledged that he asked leadership to include the Tesla dealership language in the budget. But he said his business interests had nothing to do with his vote, calling what he does a hobby that brings him no profit.

"I purchased a handful of Teslas to get parts I need and I'm selling parts I don't need," he said. "It is just what I love to do in my spare time."

The maneuver was pivotal for majority Republicans, who radically reshaped Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' proposed spending plan in recent months before passing it 17-16 in the Senate. Assembly Republicans passed the $81 billion spending plan Tuesday night. Once the budget reaches Evers' desk, he has six days to sign it, veto it or line-item veto some portions.

Republicans control the Senate 19-14 but two GOP senators, Steve Nass and Dave Craig, said earlier that they wouldn't vote for the budget because it spends too much. If Kapenga had stuck with the hardline conservative faction within the chamber's Republican caucus, that would have sunk the deal.

Current Wisconsin law prohibits automakers from directly operating or controlling a dealership. Kapenga introduced bills in the last two legislative sessions that would have granted Tesla permission but the measures died.

Republicans on Tuesday inserted the Tesla dealership language in the budget in an attempt to keep Kapenga on board. Minutes before the Senate was set to convene Wednesday morning, Kapenga called a news conference to announce he would vote for the budget.

Choking up at times, he told reporters that political opponents were trying to impugn his character by spreading stories that he pushed for the Tesla exemption to help his business. He insisted that he simply loves Tesla vehicles and loves rebuilding them in his downtime.

Kapenga's latest economic interest statements on file with the state Ethics Commission mention his interest in the business, Integrity Motorsports LLC , but don't mention it as a source of income. The company website says it began rebuilding and selling Tesla salvage vehicles in 2017.

Kapenga said the dealership provisions alone didn't convince him to vote for the spending plan. He cited other spending reductions that Republicans made to the plan this spring.

Senate debate on the budget began immediately after Kapenga finished his news conference. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald began the proceedings by praising Republicans for scaling back spending in Evers' initial budget proposal by about $2 billion.

"We've taken his out-of-control spending plan and turned it into a responsible budget for Wisconsin," Fitzgerald said. "(Evers) has every reason to sign this bill and get this money to the schools and taxpayers of Wisconsin."

Evers and Republicans haven't been able to compromise on any major issues since Evers took office in January. It's unclear how Evers will handle the budget. He has said only that he wants to see the final document before deciding what to do.

The current budget runs through Sunday, but state government would not shut down if there is a stalemate. Instead, current spending levels would continue until the next two-year budget is enacted, however long that takes.

Republicans and Evers disagreed sharply on school funding and taxes, among other things. The GOP plan raises K-12 funding about $500 million, about a third of what Evers wanted. And though both sides wanted to cut income taxes, the Republican plan in the budget is smaller than what Evers wanted and not paid for by all-but ending a manufacturing tax credit program. Republicans also rejected Evers' call to expand Medicaid.

High court ruling likely ends Wisconsin redistricting case

MADISON, Wis. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Thursday that federal courts have no place in policing political district boundaries means a challenge to Republican-drawn legislative boundaries in Wisconsin is likely over, leaving Democrats with little hope of gaining ground heading into the 2020 elections.

Democratic voters filed a federal lawsuit in Madison in 2015 alleging boundaries Republicans drew in 2011 unfairly diluted Democrats' voting power. They argued Republicans spread Democrats across conservative districts and packed them into left-leaning districts.

A trial was set for July. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering claims don't belong in federal court. The decision came as the court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland.

Doug Poland, an attorney for the Democratic voters in the Wisconsin case, said lawyers for Republican legislators asked him after the ruling if he would be willing to drop the lawsuit. He didn't say what he planned to recommend his clients do, but noted the Wisconsin case is very similar to North Carolina's.

"The (U.S. Supreme Court) opinion really does not leave a path forward for our lawsuit to be adjudicated in federal court," Poland said. "It was a very disappointing ruling for us."

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized the Wisconsin lawsuit, says it's likely that Wisconsin's maps will now have to be addressed via the Legislature.

"People now know that partisan gerrymandering exists, and they hate it," Chheda said. "So our work continues."

Wisconsin legislators redraw district boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes per the U.S. Census. Republicans control both legislative houses in Wisconsin and they favor the current system, which they'll control if they maintain their majorities in 2020.

Democratic legislators introduced a bill last week that would create a commission within the Legislative Reference Bureau to draw the boundaries. Districts could not be drawn to favor a political party or incumbent and the commission couldn't use voters' political affiliations, previous election results or demographic information to make the maps.

"Because we can no longer trust either court to do what is best for the people with respect to ending political gerrymandering by either party, it is important now more than ever to continue the fight to pass non-partisan redistricting in Wisconsin," the bill's chief Senate sponsor, Dave Hansen, said in a statement Thursday.

The measure has almost no chance of passage since Republicans control both houses of the Legislature.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included provisions in the state budget calling for creating a nonpartisan redistricting process but Republicans who control the Legislature's finance committee stripped the proposal out of the spending plan this spring.

Democrats could turn to state courts, but any challenges would almost certainly end up at the state Supreme Court, likely another dead end since conservatives control the court. Poland said he hasn't studied the Wisconsin Constitution to determine whether it provides any basis for challenging politically gerrymandered districts, and such a lawsuit would be unprecedented at the state level and an uphill fight.

Democrats' best option for changing the boundaries may be to somehow recapture the majority in both the Senate and Assembly in the 2020 elections, a herculean task given the GOP boundaries will still be in play then and Republicans will go into the elections with an overwhelming 27-member majority in the Assembly.

If Republicans maintain complete control of the Legislature Evers would be able to block any new boundaries the GOP draws in 2021. If the two sides don't agree on the new boundaries they could ask a judge to draw the maps for them. Republicans will try to get that fight before the state Supreme Court. Democrats will likely try to get the case heard in federal court.

Evers issued a statement Thursday calling the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling "devastating for our democracy" and promising to veto any gerrymandered maps that land on his desk.

"The people should get to choose their representatives, not the other way around," the governor said.

Justices deal blow to effort to limit partisan districts

WASHINGTON The Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to efforts to combat the drawing of electoral districts for partisan gain on Thursday in a ruling that could embolden political line-drawing after the 2020 census.

On the court's final day of decisions before a summer break, the conservative justices ruled that federal courts have no role to play in the dispute over the practice known as partisan gerrymandering. The next round of redistricting will take place in 2021, once census results are available.

In another politically charged case decided Thursday, the court blocked for now the Trump administration's effort to add a citizenship question to the next census. It's unclear whether the Trump administration has time to address the court's concerns. Printing of census forms is supposed to begin next week.

There was no immediate response from the White House on either Supreme Court decision Thursday.

In the redistricting case, voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what is a political dispute, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court.

The court rejected challenges to Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina and a Democratic district in Maryland.

"Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering," Roberts wrote, acknowledging that the North Carolina and Maryland maps are "highly partisan."

But he said courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes.

In a dissent for the four liberals, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities." Kagan, in mournful tones, read a summary of her dissent in court to emphasize her disagreement.

Federal courts in five states concluded that redistricting plans put in place under one party's control could go too far and that there were ways to identify and manage excessively partisan districts. Those courts included 15 federal judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents reaching back to Jimmy Carter.

But the five Republican-appointed justices decided otherwise.

The decision effectively reverses the outcome of rulings in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, where courts had ordered new maps drawn, and ends proceedings in Wisconsin, where a retrial was supposed to take place this summer after the Supreme Court last year threw out a decision on procedural grounds.

Critics of partisan manipulation of electoral maps say that when one party controls redistricting, it can exaggerate and entrench its power, even in states that are otherwise closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans were the big beneficiaries of the most recent round of redistricting in 2011, following the once-a-decade census, because they scored resounding victories in the 2010 elections.

The court was examining two cases, from Maryland and North Carolina, with strong evidence that elected officials charged with drawing and approving congressional districts acted for maximum partisan advantage. In North Carolina, Republicans ran the process and sought to preserve a 10-3 split in the congressional delegation in favor of the GOP, even as statewide races are usually closely divided. In Maryland, Democrats controlled redistricting and sought to flip one district that had been represented by a Republican for 20 years.

Both plans succeeded, and lower courts concluded that the districts violated the Constitution.

Proponents of limiting partisan gerrymandering still have several routes open to them. Among those are challenges in state courts, including a pending North Carolina lawsuit.

Wisconsin Senate approves online tax bill, income tax cuts

MADISON The state Senate has approved a bill that would require online vendors like Amazon to collect and remit sales taxes from third-party sellers in perpetuity, a move that would trigger income tax cuts.

Under the bill , revenue from the taxes would cover reductions in the two lowest income tax brackets. Taxpayers could expect an average reduction of $27 for 2019 and $59 for 2020.

The Senate approved the bill unanimously Wednesday. The Assembly passed it last week. The measure goes next to Gov. Tony Evers. His spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to an email asking if he supports the bill.

Coupled with an income tax cut plan Republicans inserted in the state budget, taxpayers could expect a total annual reduction of $91 in 2019 and $124 in 2020.

Senate approves bill keeping youth prison open longer

MADISON The state Senate has passed a bill extending the deadline for closing Wisconsin's troubled youth prison.

The prison near Irma has been plagued by allegations of guard-on-prisoner abuse. Legislators passed a law last year forcing the Department of Corrections to close the prison by Jan. 1, 2021 and create smaller facilities for juvenile offenders.

But Gov. Tony Evers says that timetable is too aggressive and it will take longer to get the smaller facilities built.

The Senate approved a bill unanimously Wednesday that would keep the prison open until mid-2021. The Assembly approved the measure last week. Senate passage would send the bill on to Evers.

Evers' spokeswoman didn't respond to an email asking whether Evers will sign or veto the bill.



Associated Press