- Associated Press - Friday, March 21, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Conservative Assembly Republicans dropped their widely panned plan to impose sanctions on failing schools and instead passed a more limited accountability bill Thursday that already cleared the Senate.

The bill, which falls far short of what those working on school accountability on all sides of the issue had hoped would pass, now heads to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. Walker, who was involved with trying to come up with a more expansive bill, has indicated he would sign the measure that passed.

No deal could be reached on the GOP’s more expansive plan, which Rep. Jim Steineke had been working on in the final hours of the Assembly’s last planned session day Thursday. Instead, the more limited version passed on a voice vote with nearly no debate.

“I do agree that there is much more work to be done, but I remain skeptical of the work product,” said Pope, the only lawmaker to comment before the vote.

The Assembly worked into the night Thursday on more than 40 bills that were on a packed agenda for its last planned session day. Anything the Assembly doesn’t pass is dead for the year. Bills must pass both the Senate and Assembly in identical form before being sent to the governor.

The fate of the school accountability bill, which has been kicked around for more than three years and went through several previous versions this year, remained up in the air until late afternoon when Steineke confirmed he was dropping his plan.

“It’s a Herculean effort to do something this comprehensive,” Steineke said in an interview.

Instead, the Assembly passed the Senate bill, which simply requires all schools that take public money to have performance data and other information included on report cards for the public to see.

Steineke was pushing for creating sanctions that would lead to closing public schools and kicking private schools out of the taxpayer-subsidized voucher program. But his approach met widespread opposition, including from the Department of Public Instruction and School Choice Wisconsin. Even fellow Republican Rep. Steve Kestell, chairman of the Education Committee, urged his colleagues in an email this week to reject the idea.

Ultimately, Steineke said it was better to move ahead with passing the Senate bill rather than his idea, which wouldn’t have become law anyhow because there wasn’t enough support to pass it in the Senate.

“We obviously wanted a more comprehensive bill,” Steineke said.

He and Sen. Paul Farrow, another conservative Republican, will lead a working group with public and private school advocates and others to come up with another accountability bill next year.

Walker, public and private school representatives, lawmakers and others have been working for three years on an accountability bill but were unable to reach a deal on anything other than requiring the reporting of test results and other demographic information by the 2015 school year.

The private school voucher program was expanded statewide this year, with enrollment outside of Milwaukee and Racine capped at 500 students. That grows to 1,000 next year, and having an accountability measurement will help those arguing to further grow the program.

Democratic opponents of vouchers also want accountability measures so the performance of students in private schools that take taxpayer money can be compared with public schools.

The Assembly was also scheduled to take up:

- Early voting: In-person absentee voting would no longer be allowed past 7 p.m. or on weekends under a bill that passed 56-38 with all Republicans in support and Democrats against. Opponents argued it is an unconstitutional attempt to make it more difficult for minorities in Wisconsin’s largest cities to vote. In-person absentee voting is permitted in the two weeks leading up to an election, but the bill would limit it to no more than 45 hours a week and not on weekends or before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m. The heavily Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee utilized expanded hours in 2012 when President Barack Obama carried Wisconsin on his way to re-election.

- Asbestos lawsuits: People who have suffered from asbestos exposure would have to reveal how many businesses they plan to sue and would be required to seek money from asbestos trust funds before taking anyone to court under a Republican-backed bill that passed 55-38. Opponents, including Democrats and several veterans groups, argued that requirements in the measure will deny and delay justice to asbestos victims. But supporters said it’s designed to stop people from double-dipping and seeking damages from both businesses and trust funds in order to maximize their awards.

- Cancer drugs: Chemotherapy drugs in pill form, which patients can take at home, would be more affordable under a bill that passed the Senate on a 30-2 vote and that Walker has said he hopes the Assembly passes without any changes. But Vos unveiled a change, which was backed by cancer patient advocates, calling for a $100 copay for those taking the oral chemotherapy drugs. Vos said the change would find support in the Senate and with Walker.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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