'This bill is a mess:' AG Kaul, advocates attack GOP for considering rape kit bill

MADISON — Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and sexual assault victim advocates made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to save a pair of bipartisan bills intended to prevent a backlog of untested rape evidence kits, blasting Republicans' divisive substitute proposal as a partisan attempt to ensure nothing becomes law this session.

The Republican-backed bill adopts the same kit submission and tracking protocols laid out in the original bills but contains provisions requiring police to notify immigration officials if attackers are in the country illegally and allowing students assaulted by other students or teachers to enter the state's school choice programs. Both proposals are non-starters with Democrats. Gov. Tony Evers would almost certainly veto the legislation if it reaches him.

“This bill is a mess,” Kaul told Republicans on the Assembly Health Committee during a hearing on the measure. “It clearly was designed to introduce topics that you all know would be divisive.”

The committee's chairman, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, fired back that the legislation incorporates elements of the first two bills.

“There's no reason not to support this bill," Sanfelippo said. “It has exactly what you want but it goes a little bit further with additional rights and protections.”

Tens of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits in the U.S. have gone untested for a variety of reasons. Sometimes prosecutors decide cases are too weak to pursue or victims refuse to cooperate. Victim advocates have been pushing for years to get the kits tested in hopes of identifying serial offenders.

Republican Reps. David Steffen and Jeremy Thiesfeldt introduced bills last year that would create deadlines for submitting kits as well as a database for tracking submissions. The Senate passed the bills in October but Sanfelippo has refused to hold a hearing on them.

With the two-year legislative session set to wrap up in March, Kaul has been pressuring Sanfelippo to do something. Sanfelippo has refused, saying there's no urgency since the backlog has been eliminated and Kaul should stop bullying him.

Steffen and Thiesfeldt on Friday supplanted the bills Kaul was pushing with the new legislation. Sanfelippo scheduled a hearing within hours. His committee is set to vote on the bill Thursday. The Assembly is expected to hold a floor vote on Tuesday.

Facing defeat, Kaul lined up sexual assault advocates and forensic nurses to blast the bill at a news conference Wednesday.

“I don't think this is about survivors,” said Kate Knowlton, an attorney with Lotus Legal Clinic, which provides free legal services for sexual assault victims. “I think this is about voters. To sabotage this (effort) in less than a business week is more than confounding. It's unacceptable.”

Erin Thornly Parisi, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, said the immigration provision was a racist aside intended to keep immigrant women from reporting assaults.

“(The new bill) sends a loud and clear message that if immigrants want justice for being raped in the state of Wisconsin they had to have gotten here first and they had better be white,” she said.

Steffen tried to defend the bill, asking Democrats on the panel to “sheath your daggers for the next couple of minutes and listen.” He said the bill is intended to give student victims in one-school towns an opportunity to transfer and encourage immigrant women to report assaults.

Democrats on the panel said Steffen stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Kaul on the original bills and demanded to know which Assembly Republicans blocked the proposals. Steffen wouldn't say.

“Sometimes the sausage-making is so ugly it's appropriately behind closed doors,” he said. “I didn't want to go another session without getting this done. This is what we got. This is an incredible, positive step forward for the state of Wisconsin.”

Jacqueline Jaske was sexually assaulted in West Allis 25 years ago. DNA obtained during a subsequent examination helped convict her attacker. She called the new bill “a political stall tactic and a political brawl on the playground between rivals.”

“We are the pawns in this game, victims and survivors,” she told the committee.