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Harsdorf still holds hope for ethanol legislation

As the Wisconsin Legislature heads into the last week of the two-year session, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf said she will focus on bills that promote the use of ethanol in automobile fuel.

"We're not going away," said Harsdorf, R-River Falls, last week. "We've got some things in drafts, and we're trying to build support."

A bill, authored by Harsdorf, to require that automotive gasoline contain between 9.2 percent and 10 percent ethanol, was passed by the Assembly but essentially killed in the Senate.

The bills she is now focusing on provide incentives for use and production of ethanol mixes.

"To me it's an issue of recognizing our need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Harsdorf. "We have commodities here that can be used."

She said there is strong opposition in the southeastern part of the state to ethanol legislation. People there are angry about federal legislation forcing them to use reformulated gasoline and might be confusing the two issues, said Harsdorf.

To those who say they object because they don't want government dictating the fuel they use, Harsdorf says, "Government is already involved. If it weren't, we'd still be using leaded gasoline."

Harsdorf also recently introduced legislation requiring school districts to spend at least 65 percent of K-12 operating expenses on direct classroom instruction.

She said Senate Bill 668 would "redirect over $250 million statewide into the kids' classroom while investing in teachers."

Health insurance costs are a driving force in school budgets, and this legislation would give local districts a tool to control that part of their budgets, said Harsdorf.

She said she hopes this bill will "begin the discussion."

Districts that can't meet the standard now would be required to increase direct classroom expenditures by 2 percent each year until the 65 percent level is met. The bill would reduce a school district's state aid payments by the difference between what the district spent on direct classroom expenditures and what it should have spent. It also prohibits the district from levying extra property taxes to cover that reduction.

Harsdorf listed these among accomplishments during the 2005-06 legislative session:

  • She voted for a property tax levy freeze in the 2005-07 budget and said that while the governor "watered down the freeze," local spending was less than the rate of inflation for only the fifth time in 25 years. Tax bills on a median-valued house would have been nearly $150 higher than without the freeze.
  • The Legislature voted to limit non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits to $750,000. Harsdorf said the legislation she co-sponsored will "ensure doctors can afford to practice medicine and exorbitant costs of lawsuits are not passed on to consumers."

    She expects the caps will be challenged in court and the Supreme Court will rule on them.

  • Harsdorf helped write legislation - labeled the Crackdown on Meth Act - that limits access to drugs used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

    Legislation still in the works includes:

  • A bill to increase a surcharge on fees to dump trash in Wisconsin. Tipping fees in this state are about $20 a ton less than in Minnesota.

    "There's an economic incentive to Minnesota to bring their waste to our state," said Harsdorf.

    "It's not a ban. It just recognizes if there's contamination from a landfill, it falls on people in our state," she said.

    The state doesn't want to become "a magnet for out-of-state waste," said Harsdorf.

  • A ban on the "Frankenstein veto," a power that allows a governor to use his veto authority to create new sentences with new meanings by "cobbling together" other sentences in a bill.

    Last year Gov. Jim Doyle crossed out 752 words to create a new 20-word sentence to spend $427 million in a way the Legislature never intended, said Harsdorf.

    "This doesn't take away the (governor's) partial veto authority," she said. "I believe a governor ought to be able to write down legislation."

    The limit on the governor's veto power was adopted by both houses of the Legislature this session and must be approved by both again next session before going to a statewide referendum.

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