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Capital City Sunday: Refugees reach Fort McCoy, redistricting lawsuits stacking up

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8-29 Cap City Guest FSG

MADISON (WKOW) -- Elected officials from both parties visited Fort McCoy this week following the arrival of about 1,000 Afghan refugees who are being processed at the military base.

The Republican contingent, led by Senator Ron Johnson, told reporters Wednesday they received briefings from Maj. Gen. Darrell Guthrie, who's overseeing the processing at Fort McCoy, as well as a representative from the U.S. State Department.

The GOP lawmakers said they learned more than 1,000 Afghan refugees had arrived on the base so far with officials there preparing to temporarily house as many as 10,000 visa applicants. On Friday, the House GOP delegation toured the base and said officials told them they expected to have 3,000 refugees on the base by the day's end.

Citing unnamed officials, Johnson said the Republican group learned many of those who've arrived at the base did not yet have Special Immigrant Visa paperwork and fell into the category of 'at-risk Afghans.' Both Johnson and Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) said they were told a number of the refugees did not have any form of identification.

"I think one of the biggest takeaways for me was finding out the vast majority of the folks coming into Fort McCoy are not the SIVs; they are other individuals who are at risk or, in some cases, had no documentation at all," Testin said. "Which is why it's going to be critical that these individuals are vetted properly."

The White House told Wisconsin media on a call Monday the Pentagon was performing "biometric and biographical" checks on Afghan evacuees during stops in third-party counties, mainly in Europe or Asia, before they land in the U.S.

"I hope that our men and women are doing the proper job and I have the utmost faith in them," Testin said. "But it's something we have to keep in the back of our mind to ensure no bad actors slip through the cracks."

A spokesperson for Governor Tony Evers confirmed the governor was also at Fort McCoy Wednesday, although Evers was not available to take questions from statewide media who were at the base.

According to a press release from the governor's office, Evers and other officials were briefed on operations, planning, and medical processing by federal military personnel, got updates on Operation Allies Refuge and met with Afghan individuals already at Fort McCoy. 

Testin received criticism earlier in the week from Jason Church, a former Republican congressional candidate who was injured while serving in Afghanistan. Testin had written Evers a letter calling on the governor to get more information from the Biden administration about the screening process at Fort McCoy.

Testin relayed a story of an Afghan who lost a hand in an explosion while helping Church and other service members on a mission. Church said the man was denied a Special Immigrant Visa "years ago" because he hadn't helped the U.S. for long enough.

"I wouldn't change anything about what I said and I stand by what I said," Testin said when asked about Church's criticism. "More importantly, I agree with Jason that we have a obligation to protect those who sacrificed so much for our country and fought alongside our brave men and women."

Redistricting lawsuits stacking up

It had been widely expected, given Wisconsin's divided government, the processing of redrawing the state's voting districts for Congress and the legislature would end up being settled in court.

Following the release of new Census data two weeks ago, a liberal group immediately filed suit in federal court. This past week, two more lawsuits came down, one from the conservative group, Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and then from the progressive group, Law Forward.

The conservative suit argues that in the likely event Gov. Tony Evers and the GOP-controlled legislature cannot agree on a common set of maps, the Wisconsin Supreme Court should step in to handle the redrawing process.

"Because reapportionment is a state function," said WILL President Rick Esenberg. "Both the United States Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court have recognized that under the United States Constitution, reapportionment is for the states."

The liberal lawsuits counter the redrawing process should be handled by federal judges.

"The questions about the legality of a particular redistricting approach are largely the same everywhere," said Law Forward President Jeff Mandell. "The federal courts have done this successfully in Wisconsin for decades."

The last time redistricting came under divided government in Wisconsin was 20 years ago. In that case, and other similar situations dating back to the 1960's, federal courts have given final approval to the next decade's maps.

Esenberg argued that if any parties took issue with a set of maps approved by the state supreme court, which has a 4-3 conservative majority, they could then challenge the maps in federal court.

"If there are federal issues that are raised by the maps that the court has approved, then it is perfectly appropriate for whoever wishes to see that decision reviewed to take the matter up to the United States Supreme Court," Esenberg said.

Mandell countered that the state supreme court is ill-equipped to hear redistricting argument because it's a case that is based in fact-finding. He said the supreme court is not the place for sides to lay out evidence since its role in the legal system is to decide whether a previous ruling should hold up.

"There's no witness box in the Supreme Court courtroom," Mandell said. "There aren't the basic tools that we use in the law and we've developed over centuries to determine what the facts are."

In the meantime, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has encouraged people to submit their own regional and statewide maps. Before that, Evers had launched the People's Maps Commission encouraging people to share their map designs.

Budget blueprint and clean energy

House Democrats agreed Tuesday on a budget package that allowed for up to $3.5 trillion in spending on social initiatives like health care, child care, and climate change.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said the package would include multiple tax cuts incentivizing businesses to become more energy efficient. Granholm said there would also be weatherization program helping people cover the costs of making their homes more efficient.

"We want to make sure peoples' home are not leaking so that they can save dollars and we can prevent CO2 emissions from going up into the atmosphere," Granholm said.

Granholm said the energy portion of the package would also include incentives for utilities to pivot away from coal power toward clean energy like wind and solar. She said utility companies would qualify for the payouts if they reached 80 percent clean energy by 2030; Granholm added the subsidies would be designed to avoid having the costs of upgrades passed on to ratepayers.

"The expansion of jobs in the installation of solar or wind, the manufacture of solar or wind turbines, solar panels can be all kinds of jobs for all kinds of people," Granholm said. "Not to mention upgrading the electricity grid; those are good union jobs in electrifying our country."

The massive spending amount could be trimmed in the Senate where the votes of all 50 Democrats are necessary and the most moderate members might balk at the $3.5 trillion number. When asked what her department would do to ensure all that money is used as it was intended, Granholm pivoted toward discussing the value of public-private partnerships.

"It's not the government that's gonna be owning, for example, the transmission grid or it's not gonna be the government that's gonna be building the solar panels," Granholm said. "It's always done in partnership with the private sector."

Granholm said another project within the budget blueprint would offer incentives to businesses that add clean energy production to their portfolios.

"For example, if they're a glass maker, why not potentially consider diversifying to become a solar panel producer?" Granholm said.