Senate passes bill to drop ‘mental retardation’ term
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin legislators passed a Republican-authored bill Tuesday that would remove the term “mental retardation” from five state agencies’ administrative codes, even though Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered the deletion weeks ago after he learned the GOP was working on the measure.
The Senate and Assembly both passed the bill on voice votes with no debate within hours of each other. But Evers’ order mandates all state agencies, not just the five covered in the bill, drop the term.
Republicans insist Evers hijacked their idea to score political points, while the governor said Tuesday he was just “covering all the bases” with an all-encompassing order and reiterated his pledge to sign the bill despite the feud.
“This wasn’t one-upmanship against anybody,” Evers said. “We just feel the issue is important enough we need to move quickly.”
The bill would immediately replace the phrase “mental retardation” and derivatives with “intellectual disability” in administrative code governing the state Public Service Commission, as well as the departments of Health Services, Children and Families, Safety and Professional Services, and Workforce Development. The measure closely mirrors legislation former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed in 2012 removing “mental retardation” from state law.
Republican Rep. John Jagler, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have been working on this proposal since October. Evers last month issued an executive order that requires all state agencies to remove “mental retardation” and derivatives from their codes and replace it with “intellectual disability.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke released emails Tuesday that he obtained from Evers’ office through an open records request. The emails show Jagler sent out a message on Jan. 22 to all legislators seeking co-sponsors. Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, emailed the governor’s top aides a few hours later asking whether Evers could sign an executive order accomplishing the same thing.
Evers’ executive assistant, Maddie Zimmerman, sent an email on Feb. 8 responding to Deputy Chief of Staff Kara Pennoyer’s questions about when the governor would issue the order. Zimmerman said they were hoping to wait but didn’t want to “get jacked” by the Republican bill.
Jagler and Fitzgerald have said they decided to press ahead with the proposal anyway because a state law mandating the terminology change is more permanent than an executive order.
Jagler and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos blasted Evers during a question-and-answer session with reporters before the Assembly took up the bill Tuesday afternoon, accusing him of ignoring them and belittling the executive order as a political stunt.
“If you look at the open records request from Steineke, they did not have this issue on their radar until the co-sponsorship memo went out,” Jagler said. “It was clearly a political stunt. They never communicated with us.”
Vos questioned how Republicans can work with Evers on major issues since he won’t partner with them on simple proposals like Jagler and Fitzgerald’s bill.
“I would think on a bill eliminating a term everyone agrees is outdated and inappropriate, and you can’t find common ground on that ... how in the world are you going to find common ground on other topics?” Vos said.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.