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Republicans fall short of overriding veto

Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, is disappointed that the Assembly fell short in overriding a veto Thursday that would have restored $15 million in funding for mental health beds in the Chippewa Valley.

The veto fell on a 62-34 vote along party lines, with all Republicans present voting for the override and all Democrats present voting against it.

The bill would have awarded a $15 million grant to the Hospital Sisters Health System to expand psychiatric bed capacity by 22 beds between HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls. The measure was approved by both the Assembly and Senate but was later vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.

Evers redirected that $15 million and sent it to expand psychiatric services at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center near Madison. Summerfield was stunned when Evers vetoed the funding.

“It was almost kind of a punch in the stomach. I was flabbergasted,” Summerfield said.

“This is such a need in northwest Wisconsin, and (Evers) turned his back on them.”

Summerfield said that since he was elected, he has attended numerous meetings where health officials have asked for funding for local beds to address mental health needs. Summerfield said it became clear there needed to be a location in northern Wisconsin, so people in need of services don’t have such a long commute. Many people who are committed are sent to Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh.

“We had it in the budget. Talking to law enforcement and the community — if we can have the beds here, rather than in Mendota, that’s beneficial,” Summerfield said. “It’s not just for us, it’s for Superior and Hudson, cutting down their travel time.”

To override a governor’s veto, 66 of the 99 Assembly members must vote in favor of the veto. There are 63 Republicans in the Assembly, but no Democrats crossed over to support it. Summerfield said he was hoping “the members of northern Wisconsin will not listen to (Democrat leadership) and do what is best for their area.”

Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, was author of the bill, saying it would have provided mental health beds for residents across a 29-county area; most of the beds would be for juveniles in Chippewa Falls. She said HSHS leaders had made it part of their mission to work on addressing mental health issues and were willing to partner with the state on providing the beds.

“The only way we’ll accomplish this is through a public-private partnership,” Bernier said. “The timing was perfect. I don’t know if you can replicate this in other areas of the state.”

Bernier was upset at the veto but was even more irritated the money was sent to Mendota.

“This is the most insulting thing he did, was to divert the funding for a different purpose,” she said.

Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, released a statement minutes after the override failed, criticizing Democrats for not supporting the measure.

“This local center would have allowed people to stay in their community, closer to their family and friends during a mental health emergency,” Petryk said. “It would have also saved law enforcement hundreds of thousands of dollars in transport and staff time by not having to send these individuals to the other side of the state.”

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said he supported Bernier’s bill.

“We’re well aware this is an issue in northern Wisconsin,” Smith said.

When Evers vetoed the funding, he noted the measure hadn’t gone through the state’s Building Commission for approval first. Smith agreed with Evers that this proposal needed to go through the commission.

“Why is one facility getting that money, when there is a need for this in all the counties?” Smith said.

Smith was disappointed that Republicans were focused on the veto measure and not on gun safety legislation on Thursday.

“This whole exercise of going through a vote (override) on a veto is just a distraction from what we should be talking about today, which is gun safety and legislation,” Smith said. “So, they’ll throw out their press releases and make noise, and nothing will get done on addressing gun violence.”

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, agreed that just because the item was vetoed, it doesn’t mean the proposal is off the table.

“We have stand-alone legislation that will deal with (the mental health beds),” Emerson said. “It is much better, and we’re improving it as we’re going along.”

Wisconsin GOP dodges governor's call for gun control bills

MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans dodged the Democratic governor’s call to pass a pair of gun control bills during a special session that ended as soon as it began Thursday, brushing aside advocates’ demands to take action before more people die.

Gov. Tony Evers, the state attorney general, gun control advocates and Democratic lawmakers all urged Republicans to vote on the bills. But Republicans ignored them, convening the special session separately in the Senate and Assembly and adjourning within seconds without taking action.

Evers last month ordered a special session for Thursday afternoon to address bills that would impose universal background checks on gun sales and establish a so-called red flag law in Wisconsin. Such laws allow family members and police to ask judges to temporarily seize firearms from people who may pose a threat.

Citing polls showing broad support for both ideas, Evers said Republicans will face blowback from voters at the next election over their inaction.

“If you refuse the people of this state a vote on these proposals, you are once again denying the will of the people, circumventing the democratic process, and refusing to do your jobs as elected officials,” Evers wrote in a letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on Thursday.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said Republicans should vote or risk losing power as in an election this week in Virginia, where gun violence was a major campaign issue.

“Failing to act on basic public safety measures is accepting there is nothing we can do to make our communities safer,” Hintz said.

“We cannot sit back and do nothing. We have a responsibility to act. ... The issue’s not going away. We shouldn’t have to wait for the next mass shooting to get more attention on it.”

Gun control advocates including Moms Demand Action, Doctors for America and the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee rallied at the Capitol.

“We go to school every day wondering if we will be next,” Karly Scholz, a junior at Madison West High School and the director of the Wisconsin chapter of March for Our Lives, said at a news conference before the rally. March for Our Lives is an anti-gun group that formed after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“When lawmakers say they won’t even debate this issue, I’m being told that my life doesn’t matter, that my safety doesn’t matter,” Scholz said. “When the young people you refuse to protect turn 18, we will vote you out.”

Assembly Democrats argued that the red flag bill would do more to prevent suicides than a package of other measures the Assembly passed that sprang from a bipartisan suicide prevention task force.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said lawmakers have a chance to save lives.

“This problem isn’t going to go away because the Legislature ignores it,” Kaul said.

Seventeen states have passed red flag laws. Twenty-one states have similar universal background check laws.

But Fitzgerald and Vos insist both proposals infringe on Second Amendment gun rights. Vos said he opposed the red flag law because it would allow for confiscation of weapons if there’s a suspicion someone may do something wrong.

“Even when you yell fire in a crowded theater, it happens first and you’re prosecuted after,” Vos said. “I don’t understand those who would want to take away our constitutional rights on an idea or a threat.” He said a Republican-sponsored bill that would make grants available to gun shop owners to store guns from people who voluntarily give them up is less invasive than the red flag proposal.

Fitzgerald, for his part, has said it makes no sense to debate bills that won’t pass without Republican support. He convened the special session to an empty Senate chamber and adjourned it about 30 seconds later. The Assembly was in special session about 10 seconds.

Despite all the warnings that Republicans will pay at the ballot box for ignoring the special session call, it’s unlikely they’ll suffer much damage in 2020.

The GOP redrew legislative district lines in 2011 to consolidate its support, leaving only a handful of truly competitive seats. As a result, Republican incumbents are less concerned about Democrats than they are about primary opponents who might appear more conservative than them. Gun rights are a basic plank in the Republican platform; any show of support for the special session bills or Evers would almost certainly invite such a challenge.

Evers almost certainly understands these dynamics, but calling a special session on guns is still important to his base and gives him a chance to remind voters where each party stands.

Families separated: Some local Somalis say they still wait for children, family

Some Somali-Americans in western Wisconsin have been separated from their children and family members for several years, and stricter immigration policies have made reunification harder, several Barron residents said Thursday at UW-Eau Claire.

Barron is home to hundreds of Somalis. Many fled war and conflict in Somalia in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Though the refugees have made homes in Barron, some having become American citizens, many are still waiting for word of their families.

Some don’t know where their children are. They also don’t know how long they’ll wait to be reunited.

“When I came to the U.S., I was thinking my children would join me in six months,” Hawa Hassan said Thursday at UW-Eau Claire through an interpreter, Barron resident Abas Moalin.

But Hassan hasn’t seen her three children for six years, since September 2013.

Hassan and three other Somali-American Barron residents, who are or are in the process of becoming U.S. citizens, spoke Thursday in a presentation, “Refugees & Immigrants in Barron County: The Voices of Despair & Hope,” hosted by faculty members of the UW College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

A several-country travel ban and what President Donald Trump has called “extreme vetting” has made family reunification for Barron Somalis a longer process, said Nancy Pike, a member of bipartisan group Immigration Advocates of Barron County.

Despite stricter immigration rules during Trump’s administration, the Barron residents who spoke Thursday said they were grateful to the U.S. and the Barron community.

“It’s like a mother helps her children grow; the U.S. is like a mother,” said Hassan, who said she has begun the process to be reunited with her children.

Fadumo Hassan, who runs Bushra Fashion Shop in Barron, estimates there are over 600 Somalis in the city.

Barron’s population, as of 2010, was 3,423, according to U.S. census data. In 2017, over 13% of that population was black or African-American.

After the presentation Thursday, Pike rattled off directions to Fadumo’s store: It’s off U.S. 8, turn left after the Dollar General. Fadumo nods and adds: “Next to the mosque.”

Fadumo, who’s lived in the city for seven years, has two sons; she’s waiting for them to join her in Barron.

Another Barron resident, Abdinasir Abdi, has lived there for four years. He’s a native of Somalia but was a refugee in Malta before traveling to Wisconsin; his family hasn’t joined him yet. He has 10 children, he said.

Evolving rules

The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld Trump’s December 2017 travel ban on five mostly Muslim countries, including Somalia, and two non-Muslim countries.

During his 2016 campaign Trump championed an “extreme vetting” process for would-be United States immigrants. In 2017 Trump tweeted that he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program.”

Vetting for refugees seeking asylum has been stepped up since then, Pike said, adding that some refugees who had passed medical interviews and were preparing to buy plane tickets to the U.S. were bounced back to the beginning of the process.

The travel ban does have an allowance for “close family” members; but that doesn’t mean Barron Somalis’ children’s asylum requests will be automatically approved, Pike said.

A friend of Pike’s with four teenage children living in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, didn’t have a way to speed up the teenagers’ requests when the teens’ caretaker died.

“There’s no formal apparatus created … there’s no way to file for a waiver, you just have to kind of hope that your case gets pegged as being appropriate for an exception,” Pike said. “It’s a really tricky situation in so many ways.”

Would-be immigrants often have two options, Pike said. An existing refugee or someone who was granted asylum can file an I-730 petition for a spouse, and/or children under 21, to join them in the U.S.

A more expensive option is the I-130 petition, a petition to allow a family member of a citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident to immigrate to the U.S.

But high costs can be a barrier to many immigrants, especially those with large families, Pike said.

The I-130 petition carries a $535 nonrefundable filing fee, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Families also have to pay for DNA testing, provide proof of health insurance and buy plane tickets, Pike said: “That’s another really hard way to get people here.”

Somali-Americans in Barron take pride in supporting themselves and their families financially, and they are a core workforce at the city’s Jennie-O turkey processing plant, said Pamela Guthman, a UW-Eau Claire assistant nursing professor, who co-organized the presentation Thursday.

“I don’t know how they’ve done what they’ve done,” Guthman said, praising their “resiliency and independence.”

Looking ahead

Nearly 3 million Somalis are displaced, either within the country itself or registered as refugees in Africa, according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Moalin, Abdi, Hawa and Fadumo on Thursday asked community members to ask lawmakers about modifying the travel ban and increasing processing of refugee visas.

“We thank the U.S. government for helping us … we really love our U.S. cities … they give us help when we need help,” Abdi said.

“We need to raise our voices, talk to our representatives, talk to our leaders,” Fadumo added.

Immigrant Advocates of Barron County will premiere a documentary about Barron Somali-Americans’ family separation, “Somali Separation Stories in Barron, WI,” at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, at the Barron Area Community Center, 800 Memorial Drive. For more information about the documentary, email iabarroncounty@gmail.com.