Senate Republicans reject abortion referendum, approve welfare work requirements

NOW: Senate Republicans reject abortion referendum, approve welfare work requirements

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Senate Republicans swiftly rejected Democrats' attempt to add a referendum about repealing the state's criminal abortion ban on the April ballot and instead approved their proposal on welfare eligibility. 

Hours before the Senate convened Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats asked Republicans to replace their referendum on work requirements for welfare recipients with one that would ask voters whether the 1849 law banning nearly all abortions should be repealed.

Democrats argued protecting abortion rights should be a top priority this legislative session, not work search requirements. 

"Their resolution simply puts attacks on low-income people," said Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison). 

The GOP measure passed 22-10 with all Democrats voting against besides Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska). It would ask voters should "able-bodied child-less adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits." 

The effort wouldn't have any effect since voters cannot change laws through referendum. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who co-authored the resolution with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), defended the move saying the intent was to put workforce issues in the spotlight on the first day of session. 

"When I first ran for office in 2014, the first thing I heard going around talking to small businesses and large businesses is that they have a problem hiring people," LeMahieu said. "We have workforce challenges out there and businesses are struggling to find employees and that what we're focusing on with this advisory referendum."

Evers called the proposal unnecessary because people already have to meet certain criteria in order to receive food stamps and are required to search for jobs to obtain unemployment benefits.

"I think theirs is frankly ridiculous to have an advisory referendum that already exists," Evers said.

Republicans also view the referendum as an opportunity to energize conservatives in an effort to boost turnout for the high stakes state Supreme Court race on April 4, a contest that could tip the ideological balance of the court from conservative to liberal. 

"I think it will work against them when people see the only thing they are doing here is to influence the Supreme Court race," said Evers. 

Evers added Democrats proposal is not the same as Republicans because it asks voters to weigh in on a law that's the center of legal dispute regarding the fate of abortion policy. 

Last year, Republican lawmakers rejected Evers' special session to vote on a constitutional amendment that would have created a pathway for voters to repeal laws passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, such as the state 174-year-old law that makes it a felony to provide an abortion unless a mother's life is in danger.

In addition to the referendum proposal, the Senate passed a constitutional amendment aimed at making it harder for violent defendants to get out of jail on bail.

The measure received bipartisan support last session. The Assembly is scheduled to take up the proposal on Thursday and if approved the issue will be placed on the April ballot. 

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