Michigan, Wisconsin Return, Alaska Tackles Native Rights

Summer has officially come to an end for Michigan and Wisconsin lawmakers who began their fall legislative sessions this week.

Wisconsin lawmakers returned to Madison Tuesday, and on the first day back the Assembly passed a bill 85-14 that would give school districts the option of refusing to hire, or deciding to fire, convicted felons.

The state's Fair Employment Act prohibits discrimination based on conviction records, although it says an employer can refuse to hire a felon if the individual's offense is substantially related to that particular job.

The hiring and firing of felons became a statewide concern after Mark Moore, 37, a school janitor since 1980, was fired after the Milwaukee Public School District learned he had been convicted of severely burning a child with hot grease. A state agency ordered the school district to rehire Moore as a boiler room worker.

Rep. Antonio Riley (D-Milwaukee) opposed the bill saying that the legislation is too broad, and that it could extend to adulterers, cable television thieves, and those who have fallen behind in their child support payments.

Also approved this week by the state assembly was a bill that would prevent police chiefs, sheriffs and state troopers from imposing quotas on how many traffic tickets officers must issue. But, Transportation Department officials and the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association said the bill is a waste of time, because state law enforcement agencies do not use quotas.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, said he introduced the bill so officers will be more concerned about public safety on Wisconsin roads than issuing a certain number of parking tickets in a given amount of time.

The Assembly also passed a bill that would require day care providers for children under age one to be trained in methods to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

But Wisconsin's budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 is still being hammered out.

The eight-member Senate and House budget conference committee was expected to begin meeting last week, but members have only met so far on an informal basis. Gov. Tommy Thompson pressured the committee to resume negotiations broken off two months ago.

Wisconsin and Massachusetts are the only states still without budgets well into fiscal year 2000. Massachusetts legislative leaders have provided no clues about when their spending plan will be completed, and road and construction projects throughout the state are on hold.

"I think we can beat Massachusetts (in getting a budget passed)," said Bob Allen, an aide to Senator Brian Burke, who is on the budget committee. "But Massachusetts has the Red Sox."

The Wisconsin legislature will meet until mid-November, and then adjourn until their 2000 session begins in late January.

Michigan lawmakers returned to Lansing Tuesday after a 14-week summer break. On its first day back to work, the House voted to close all public schools the Friday before Labor Day.

The same bill was defeated last June. It is supported by Gov. John Engler and is expected to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, which has already approved a similar bill. The 58-48 vote was split almost entirely along party lines, with only two Democrats voting for the bill.

This time around, the bill passed due to pressure from the travel industry, which complained that the early starting of schools deprived the tourist industry of millions of dollars in revenue generated by family vacations. Opponents of the bill argued that local school boards--not the state--should decide when schools open and close.

A bill to crack down on false bomb threats in schools won unanimous approval Wednesday in a state Senate committee. Schools across Michigan received a rash of bomb threats following the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The Senate Judiciary Committee said the maximum penalty for making a false bomb threat would be four years in prison and a $2,000 fine. A second threat could mean 10 years behind bars and a $5,000 fine.

The Michigan legislature's fall agenda also includes plans to make it tougher for teachers to go on strike, and a bill that bars Detroit school administrators from joining unions. What is not on the agenda is a tax cut that was rumored in light of the state's $452 million budget surplus.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles called the legislature into special session Wednesday in order to vote on a constitutional amendment that would give rural subsistence hunters and fisherman a priority over sport and commercial users when fish and game are limited. The Alaska Constitution, according to a 1989 state Supreme Court decision, doesn't allow that priority.

The issue facing legislators is not a new one--it has been raised for the past 10 regular sessions and four previous special sessions. But, this time around the problem is more pressing because the U.S. government, under a federal court order, says it will take over management of subsistence fishing across federal lands starting Oct. 1 unless the Legislature agrees to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

"The day of reckoning is here," Knowles said. "Nothing better distinguishes Alaskans from other Americans than our relationship to the land. And in village Alaska, subsistence from that land is the special bond that defines the very essence of the rural way of life."

Chrisanne Loll of stateline.org contributed to this report.