Legislature Passes Bipartisan Bills as Session Concludes

The 2013-14 legislative session concluded this past week with the State Legislature giving final approval to a number of bills addressing important issues ranging from the heroin epidemic, coverage of oral chemotherapy, and updating agricultural implement regulations.

Building on legislation passed earlier this session that focused on saving lives and discouraging the use of heroin, the State Senate gave final approval to a bill that will allow for the creation of regional comprehensive opioid programs. These programs will provide additional treatment options in rural and underserved areas for those in need of treatment.

Another bill that passed with bipartisan support mirrors a program that is seeing tremendous results in other states as it recognizes drug addiction as a public health and correctional issue. The “rapid response” legislation focuses on individuals who are convicted of a drug offense and during probation violate the conditions of supervision, such as abusing drugs again. The Department of Corrections will design a program that will create immediate, short-term sanctions for individuals who violate the terms of their supervision, as research has shown that drug use and reoffending is less likely when consequences are immediately imposed.

The State Senate also gave final approval to the oral chemotherapy bill, which will help establish parity between oral chemotherapy and intravenous chemotherapy under health insurance policies. As a cosponsor of this legislation, I am pleased that this bill was signed into law by the Governor last week and will help ensure cancer patients have access to the treatment that is most effective in fighting their particular cancer. Oral chemotherapy is a more convenient treatment option for those not in close proximity to a treatment facility and provides an alternative that can help improve a patient’s quality of life as they undergo the treatment they need.

Final approval was also given to legislation that modifies the weight and width allowances for agricultural implements in an effort to update regulations with current farming practices. As one of our state’s top industries, agriculture plays a vital role in our economy and this legislation will enable our farmers to continue to be productive and efficient.

These bills and other legislation given final approval by the Legislature are now before the Governor for his consideration. With the end of the legislative session, any bills that have not been acted on will need to be reintroduced in the next session in order to be considered.

What issues would you like to see the State Legislature take up next session? Please stay in touch by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

State Legislature Passes Oral Chemotherapy Bill

Legislation to ensure access to oral chemotherapy for cancer patients was a highlight of a busy week in the State Legislature, as both houses work to complete action on legislation before the end of the session. Senate Bill 300 (SB 300), also known as the “Cancer Treatment Fairness Act,” was passed with broad, bipartisan majorities in both the State Senate and the State Assembly this week.

As a cosponsor of SB 300, I was pleased that we were successful in passing this important legislation that will help ensure that cancer patients have access to the treatment that is most effective in fighting their particular cancer. Even as intravenous chemotherapy is the most common chemotherapy treatment option, more than 25% of chemotherapy drugs being developed are administered orally. Additionally, oral chemotherapy can be an alternative for those whose illness has not responded to other treatments and has been shown to improve patients’ quality of life and provide a more convenient and less invasive treatment option.

SB 300 will create parity by requiring that insurance policies that provide coverage for intravenous chemotherapy also cover oral chemotherapy. The bill is expected to come before the State Senate for final approval on April 1st and will then go to the Governor for his signature.

In other action this week, the State Legislature also passed Senate Bill 648, legislation I authored that provides options to border communities to contract with neighboring counties in another state to hold inmates. Given the limitations of border areas due to geography in collaborating with neighboring counties, this legislation provides additional options to local governments to find cost savings or address overcrowding in local jails by partnering with adjacent counties in another state. This legislation is now before the Governor for his signature.

Other proposals given final approval this week by the State Senate and that have been sent to the Governor for his consideration include:
• Assembly Bill 270, which would expand the list of health care and mental health professions that may be covered by the state’s volunteer health provider program. This program encourages health care professionals to volunteer their services at no cost, such as through free clinics, by providing liability coverage through state government.
• Assembly Bill 668 provides an additional $1.5 million in state grant funding for county treatment and diversion programs that have proven successful at providing alternatives to courts in addressing offenders that are dealing with alcohol or drug addictions.
• Assembly Bill 620 strengthens and improves state laws to combat human trafficking, which is a rapidly growing criminal enterprise and a global problem affecting vulnerable children and adults.

Please free feel to contact me on these bills or any other issue by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

Harsdorf Votes for Property Tax Relief

State Senate Approves Returning State Surplus Back to Taxpayers

(Wisconsin State Capitol – Madison) – The State Senate took up and passed legislation this week that will complete efforts to return the state’s budget surplus back to hard-working taxpayers. The final package will lower property taxes for seniors and working families, lowers the bottom income tax rate, and improves the fiscal condition of the state’s general fund as compared to the original proposal.

“We are listening to taxpayers and returning the state’s surplus back to the pockets of those that earned it,” Harsdorf said. “I am pleased that this additional tax relief will help families during these challenging economic times and encourage further economic growth and activity.”

In addition to the tax relief included in the legislation passed this week, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue is modifying paycheck withholdings for state income taxes to reflect recent reductions in tax rates. These changes will ensure that workers take home more of their wages by lowering the amount the state takes out of each paycheck beginning in April. Between the property and income tax changes approved by the State Legislature and the withholding changes, it is anticipated that the average working family will see an approximate $700 annual benefit.

“Our action continues to put taxpayers first and is the third significant tax relief measure passed this session,” Harsdorf continued. “It is encouraging that our efforts to improve our state’s business climate and restore fiscal responsibility are paying off for taxpayers.”

Along with the tax relief, the State Legislature is committing a portion of the budget surplus to further ongoing efforts to address the skills gap. These funds will be used to provide more funding for job training in high-demand fields, grants for collaborative private-public partnerships to provide high school students with technical skills, and additional resources to assist those with disabilities to find employment.

State Legislature Addresses Heroin Epidemic

This week, the State Senate unanimously passed the H.O.P.E legislation, a package of bills I was pleased to introduce in the State Senate that address the growing heroin epidemic in our state. These bills, having already passed the State Assembly, will now go to the Governor for his signature.

While heroin addiction has been on the rise throughout our state, western Wisconsin has been hit especially hard. In 2013, in Hudson alone there were 7 deaths due to heroin overdose. Two Hudson residents who have been directly affected by heroin shared their personal stories of addiction and tragedy at legislative public hearings. Karen Hale lost her daughter, Alysa, to a heroin overdose and is now devoting her time and energy to saving lives. Phil Drewiske, a recovering heroin addict, shared his story of battling his addiction with heroin.

Two of the bills in the H.O.P.E. package deal with prescription drugs in an effort to make them less accessible to those that may struggle with addiction. Individuals who have become addicted to heroin often times report that their history with substance abuse started by taking prescription painkillers. The first bill will require individuals to show identification in order to pick up prescriptions of highly-addictive medications at pharmacies. By having this information on hand, pharmacies will be able to assist law enforcement in solving crimes and identifying those that are abusing prescription drugs. The second bill updates existing state law in order to clearly provide statutory authority for prescription drug disposal programs. These programs provide an important service by ensuring that prescription drugs are not readily available to those who may abuse them and that unwanted drugs do not enter our water supply.

The last two bills in the H.O.P.E. package seek to prevent loss of life by aiding those that have medical emergencies due to heroin use. Heroin users often use in groups, as individuals will help one another to “shoot up.” Unfortunately, when an overdose situation occurs, other heroin users in the group tend to leave the person rather than call to report the overdose for fear of being arrested. The third bill will provide limited immunity for possession of a controlled substance when an individual calls 911 or brings a person in an overdose situation to a health care facility. Finally, the fourth bill allows trained emergency service personnel and others to legally carry the drug Naloxone, also known as Narcan. This drug counters the effects of an overdose and can save lives if administered in a timely fashion.

While these bills are an important step towards addressing the heroin epidemic, there is more work to be done. We have seen success in treatment alternative and diversion programs in dealing with substance abuse and addiction issues, and two additional bills currently before the State Legislature seek to build on that success. One bill would create regional comprehensive opioid treatment programs in underserved, high-need areas. The second would create an evidence based program working with individuals on probation and parole for immediate sanctions for probation violations. This legislation will further our efforts as we address prevention, treatment, and the saving of lives.

What are your thoughts on combating the heroin epidemic? Please free feel to contact me on this or any other issue by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745 or sending me an e-mail at Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.

Tax Relief Leads January’s Legislative Headlines

Last week, the Governor gave his State of the State address and outlined his proposal for returning the state’s over $900 million budget surplus back to taxpayers. This latest effort to deliver tax relief would be accomplished through reducing property taxes, a reduction in the bottom income tax rate, and adjusting income tax withholding tables that will increase the amount of money workers keep in each paycheck. Additionally, the Governor proposes using a portion of the surplus to deposit in the state’s rainy day fund to help safeguard taxpayers against future economic downturns.

The Governor’s plan seeks to reduce the impact of technical colleges on property tax bills by providing over $400 million in property tax relief. I have heard from citizens throughout our region expressing their frustration with the growth of the technical college levy on their tax bills. In past legislative sessions, I have proposed legislation seeking to increase the state’s commitment to funding technical colleges in order to reduce the property tax levy. I am pleased that the tax relief proposal before us acknowledges these concerns and would act to reduce the technical college levy.

In addition to enacting further tax relief, the State Legislature is working to finish action on a number of important initiatives and measures as we head into the final weeks of our legislative session. The State Senate took bipartisan action last week to approve ten bills seeking to improve mental health treatment in our state. These bills were the product of a bipartisan task force that was charged with reviewing and proposing reforms to state laws on mental health issues.

A number of bills I have been working on were also advanced or received public hearings last week. Several of these bills were brought to my attention by residents of our area, including Senate Bill 325, a bipartisan effort to strengthen state laws prohibiting dangerous synthetic drugs, such as K2 and bath salts. Law enforcement and school officials have expressed alarm over the increased availability and growing use of synthetic drugs and the associated risks that result from using these substances. Senate Bill 325 received final approval from the State Legislature this week and will now be sent to the Governor for his signature. Other bills acted on that were brought to my attention by constituents include:

• Senate Bill 75, legislation that would bring Wisconsin’s laws in line with those of neighboring states involving three vehicle combinations of recreational vehicles. This legislation received final legislative approval and will make our state more inviting to travelers and tourists.
• Senate Bill 435 is legislation commonly known as the “cookie bill.” This legislation seeks to encourage homegrown businesses that sell home-baked and home-canned goods and was approved this week by a State Senate committee.

Information on these bills and other parts of my legislative agenda can be found on my website at www.harsdorfsenate.com. I welcome your comments and input, which you can share through my website or by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745.

UPDATED: Propane Shortage Affecting Wisconsin

UPDATE 1/27:

Today the Governor took several actions to address the propane shortage being experienced in Wisconsin after having declared a state of emergency over the weekend.  The Governor ordered the Department of Administration’s Division of Energy Services to make an additional $7 million available to counties administering the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program (WHEAP).  For more information and criteria on eligibility for the program, you may contact the energy assistance call center at 1-866-HEATWIS (432-8947).

The rapidly rising cost of propane has exhausted some propane retailers’ lines of credit to replenish their supplies of propane as they become available.  In response, the Governor directed the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to implement a $5 million loan guarantee plan aimed at providing these propane retailers with a new line of credit.  Under the plan, WEDC will offer 80% loan guarantees to Wisconsin propane retailers.

Additionally, the Governor instructed the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) to move forward with a similar $3 million loan guarantee plan for propane dealers.  While these actions seek to address the cost of propane, supply issues continue to keep propane reserves low.  Prior actions to enable companies to ship propane into Wisconsin by truck remain in place to aid in the effort to increase the supply of propane.

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In rural parts of our state, many Wisconsinites rely on the use of propane fuel, also referred to as liquefied petroleum (LP) gas, to heat their homes. Currently, a shortage of propane is affecting much of the country, including Wisconsin and the Midwest. The shortage is attributable to numerous factors including an unusually cold winter, the shutdown of a pipeline that previously supplied a substantial portion of the region’s propane supply, and a fall harvest that saw increased use of propane for corn drying.

To address the shortage in Wisconsin, the Governor has issued executive orders relaxing certain trucking regulations in an effort to increase the state’s supply of propane. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a declaration of emergency that will also aid propane transporters to meet demand.

The limited supply of propane is also resulting in burdensome price increases for many consumers. Individuals affected by the shortage are encouraged to contact their county’s social services office to inquire about their eligibility for assistance under the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program (WHEAP). For more information you may contact the energy assistance call center at 1-866-HEATWIS (432-8947).

With more bitterly cold weather on its way, you are encouraged to check in on those you know that are using propane for their heating source. Additionally, other recommendations include calling to schedule a delivery when your tank is 30% full to help ensure that you receive additional fuel to meet your needs and to lower the temperature in your home by a degree or two to conserve propane.

Harsdorf Statement on State of the State Address

The recent good news of our state’s growing budget surplus shows Wisconsin is continuing to move forward and building upon the successes of our past two budgets. Thanks to the reforms we have passed and by exercising fiscal responsibility, we are now able to return the benefits of our growing economy back to the hard-working taxpayers of our state.

On Wednesday, the Governor reaffirmed our commitment to reduce our state’s tax burden by returning surplus tax dollars back to Wisconsin residents. I am pleased that the property tax relief proposed by the Governor seeks to reduce the impact of technical colleges on our property tax bills, which has been a growing concern raised by homeowners and small businesses in our region. I look forward to working to advance tax relief as the Governor’s proposals are brought before the State Legislature for consideration.

Harsdorf: Use Surplus for Tax Relief, Budget Stability

Fiscal Responsibility and Growing Economy Creates State Budget Surplus

(Wisconsin State Capitol – Madison) – Updated revenue estimates released this week by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau indicate that Wisconsin’s budget surplus will grow by $911 million by the end of the two-year budget. The increasing budget surplus is the result of our state’s growing economy and the Legislature’s fiscally responsible budgeting.

“The latest revenue figures and the budget surplus are great news for Wisconsin residents,” Harsdorf stated. “The surplus provides us with another opportunity to return tax dollars to hardworking taxpayers, as well as providing greater budget stability through the rainy day fund.”

The latest revenue figures are in addition to the $670 million surplus at the end of the prior fiscal year last summer, which the State Legislature returned to taxpayers through income tax cuts in the state budget bill. An additional $100 million in unanticipated revenue growth was applied to property tax relief last fall. The current budget surplus will enable a third significant tax relief measure to be enacted this legislative session.

“Our state’s economic growth and the prudent budgeting by the State Legislature are continuing to pay off for taxpayers,” continued Harsdorf. “The reforms we have passed in recent years are still working to balance the budget, control spending, and encourage economic growth.”

Under state law, a portion of the new budget surplus will be placed in the state’s rainy day fund later this year. The rainy day fund currently has a record balance of $280 million and contributions have been made to the fund for three consecutive years for the first time. Harsdorf led efforts to protect the rainy day fund from raids by limiting its use to only during below-normal economic growth when state revenues are less than anticipated.

“As the legislative session wraps up this spring, I look forward to working on delivering further tax relief while continuing to focus on improving our economy and jobs climate,” Harsdorf said. “I am thrilled that we will be able to continue putting taxpayers first by building on the tax relief we have already enacted this session.”

It is expected that legislation directing the use of the budget surplus will soon come before the State Legislature’s budget-writing committee, on which Harsdorf serves.

Harsdorf Bills Focused on Jobs and Economy Enacted

Legislation to spur worker training, ATV production signed into law

(Wisconsin State Capitol – Madison) – A number of bills authored by State Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) were recently signed into law by the Governor following the completion of the State Legislature’s fall session. These pieces of legislation continue to focus on encouraging job creation and economic development, as well as reforming government. Two of the bills were included in the workforce development package that was the emphasis of the State Legislature’s fall agenda and seek to bolster Wisconsin’s apprenticeship programs.

“I have heard from a number of individuals involved in apprenticeship efforts in our area on the value of expanding these opportunities for hands-on skills training,” Harsdorf stated. “These initiatives build on our efforts to address the skills gap and insure that workers are positioned to succeed in the workforce and fill available jobs.”

One of the proposals authored by Senator Harsdorf included in the workforce development package and signed into law provides additional funding for the Youth Apprenticeship program, which matches high school students with employers to provide on-the-job training and technical college-level instruction. The second encourages participation in the Wisconsin Apprenticeship program by apprentices, employers, or other sponsors by providing financial assistance to those that complete their apprenticeship. Both bills were passed with broad, bipartisan support in the State Legislature.

Another bill that was recently enacted was legislation Senator Harsdorf authored with Representative Erik Severson to update Wisconsin’s definitions of ATVs and UTVs. Current definitions of ATVs and UTVs in state law were not consistent with current manufacturing designs and technological advances, such as electrical motors and non-pneumatic or airless tires.

“Updating state definitions of ATVs and UTVs are vital to enable manufacturers to respond to demands for innovative products,” continued Harsdorf. “These changes seek to help ensure the job security of Wisconsinites employed in the production and manufacture of ATVs and UTVs and their components, as well as keeping Wisconsin competitive for tourism opportunities involving motorized recreation.”

The signing of another bill proposed by Senator Harsdorf streamlines the payment of county medical examiners by removing an outdated requirement in state law that these officials must be paid semi-monthly. This reform was brought to Senator Harsdorf’s attention by a county official in western Wisconsin and eliminates an unnecessary mandate on counties that will allow medical examiners to be included in regular payroll systems along with other employees.

Wisconsin’s Top Ten of 2013

As 2013 comes to a close, the end of the year provides us with a good time to reflect on the year’s happenings. Here is my list of the top ten headlines and events of the year in our state.

Budget Surplus – The tough decisions made in the prior state budget along with economic growth produced a $670 million budget surplus this year, allowing the Legislature to invest in our priorities and tax relief.

St. Croix River Crossing – Work on the long-awaited replacement for the Stillwater Bridge began this year after decades of delays. The St. Croix River Crossing is on pace to be completed on-budget and on-time.

Encouraging Job Creation – Legislation was enacted to boost jobs and the economy, with an emphasis on addressing the skills gap through workforce development initiatives, improving access to investment capital, and reducing unnecessary red tape.

Tax Relief – Due to the state’s improving finances the State Legislature was able to approve over $700 million in tax relief measures. Surplus revenues were returned to taxpayers through property tax relief and permanent income tax cuts.

Enhanced DNA Collection – Recognizing the value that advances in DNA technology has on saving lives, apprehending career criminals and saving taxpayer dollars, enhanced DNA collection was approved by the State Legislature and signed into law. I have championed this effort to collect DNA profiles from those arrested on felony charges to stop career criminals and provide relief to victims and their families.

Rainy Day Fund – Deposits have been made to the state’s rainy day fund for three consecutive years for the first time ever and the fund now has a balance of $280 million.

Tuition Freeze – Tuition at University of Wisconsin campuses was frozen to help students and their families.

Flex Option – The implementation of the Flexible Option degree program was authorized, a competency-based program that is designed to be a convenient way for individuals who have completed some college courses to return to their studies and earn a degree or certificate at their own pace. The UW System will be the first public university system to implement such a program.

Honoring Veterans – The contributions of our veterans was recognized by providing veterans the option to indicate their veteran’s status on their driver’s license and the state budget ensures veterans’ benefits are maintained with additional funding. Additionally, the Legislature commemorated State Road 128 as the 128th Infantry Memorial Highway and designated the Honor and Remember Flag as Wisconsin’s emblem of service and sacrifice to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Improving Economy –Wisconsin is one of 12 states that has a labor force participation rate of 68% or higher and our state’s unemployment rate is below the national average, having dropped over two percentage points from its peak during the recession. Over 11,000 new business filings have been made with the state since 2011.

What do you believe is the top story of 2013 in Wisconsin? You can let me know by visiting my website at www.harsdorfsenate.com or calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or 608-266-7745.