In a jam-packed legislative session, the Assembly took up bills Tuesday to address college affordability, heroin and opioid abuse and immigration status.

The Assembly was scheduled to consider 110 bills Tuesday, and will consider 88 more Thursday.

College affordability

A package of bills that aims to address student loan debt passed the Assembly, with Democrats seeking to provide additional aid.

Rep. Jill Billings, D-LaCrosse, said the college affordability package would not provide enough help to students and graduates.

“This is not the answer we’re looking for when we’re looking at college debt,” Billings said.

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One of the bills in the package, which would provide tax deductions on qualified student loans, passed on a 61-37 vote.

Billings said this bill is not impactful because it would affect less than 4 percent of borrowers, but Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said the bill would save students hundreds of dollars a year.

Other bills in the package would provide grants for technical colleges and for emergency situations. Both bills passed on 61-36 votes.

Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the emergency grant bill should have been stalled to increase the number of emergency grants available.

Two bills that would help increase opportunity for internships also passed through the Assembly, one on a vote of 60-37, the other on a vote of 57-40.

Billings said if the internships are unpaid, they would not actually help to decrease student debt. Murphy, however, said the intent of the bill was to create paid internships, not to guarantee them.

The last bill, which passed 63-35, would help students gain financial literacy to understand their student loans. Murphy said Indiana implemented a similar financial literacy bill, which reduced student loan debt by $44 million.

“That a real impact on the debt of those students, and we can do the same thing here,” Murphy said.

Democrats tried to add “Higher Ed, Lower Debt,” which would allow students to refinance their loans, as an amendment to the tax deduction bill, but it was not taken up. This refinancing bill has continually failed to pass through the Republican-led Legislature.

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The tuition freeze, which Gov. Scott Walker instated for the last four years, is the best way to make college more affordable, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, proposed an amendment that would allow all students who qualify for need-based financial aid to receive it. Shankland said in an email to The Badger Herald 36,358 University of Wisconsin System and technical college students were denied aid even though they qualified for it. The amendment was not taken up. 

Bills to address heroin epidemic

Five more Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education Agenda bills unanimously passed through the Assembly today.

Nygren said before the session the five bills are a continuation of the HOPE agenda that works to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic in Wisconsin. He said the focus of his agenda is to not only address the high number of heroin deaths, but target the issue where it starts, which is with prescription drug abuse.

“[We’re] trying to change that conversation for the public to have a true understanding that, yes, this can happen in their community, yes, this can happen even in their household,” Nygren said.

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One of the bills would give $2 million in grants to Treatment and Diversion programs. These programs would provide alternatives to incarceration for individuals charged with certain crimes who need additional help and support to contribute to society. Nygren said before the session the goal of this bill is to reduce recidivism rates.

The second bill would criminalize the “use, possession, manufacture, distribution and advertisement” of masking agents that are used to hide the presence of drugs in bodily fluids, according to a statement. The bill will make sure people do not interfere with drug tests that are lawfully administered by employers.

The third bill will streamline the regulation of treatment programs, which would allow for increased access to treatment. To help decrease instances of overprescribing, medical-affiliated boards under the Department of Safety and Professional Services would be allowed to issue guidelines regarding best prescribing practices for controlled substances under the fourth bill. According to the statement, this would lessen opioid misuse, abuse and addiction.

The last bill would require the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to report data so the effectiveness of PDMP could be determined. The goal of PDMP is to monitor patient drug use and identify high risk patients for early intervention, according to the CDC’s website.

Nygren said he hopes these provisions will make real changes to combat opioid and heroin abuse in Wisconsin.

“With the implementation of these bills, it’s my hope that we can stop addiction before it begins, offer people addicted to opioids the help they need in lieu of incarceration and gather information that will help us make informed decisions in the future,” Nygren said.

Immigration status

A bill allowing law enforcement to ask immigrants about their legal status if they committed a crime passed on a 62-35 vote.

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While some expressed concern the bill targets immigrants, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-Marshfield, said the goal of the legislation is to promote safety and respect federal law.

“This bill is not anti-immigrant,” Sanfelippo said.

Racine, Madison and Milwaukee are currently “sanctuary cities,” which have policies in place to not prosecute undocumented immigrants, Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, said.

But Rep. JoCosta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, said the bill is “anti-immigrant” because it discourages immigrants from reaching out to law enforcement out of fear of deportation.

“[The bill] is striking fear in immigrant families across the state,” Zamarripa said. “They’re concerned what it’s going to mean for them and their livelihood and their families.”

The bill would not allow police to inquire about citizenship for those reporting crimes, but Zamarripa said women who are victims of domestic violence might not report if their partner is an undocumented immigrant.

All the bills will now head to the Senate.