MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker is calling on lawmakers to replace Wisconsin's youth prisons this year, two weeks after Walker said the plan could wait until 2019.
The change of mind puts Walker in line with Democrats who have called for the immediate closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities in Lincoln County, northwest of Wausau. The facilities were at the center of an inmate abuse scandal and both criminal and internal investigations.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was noncommittal when asked about Walker's deadline.
"If we're able to do it by the end of the session, that would be our goal, but I'm not going to set that as a hard-and-fast deadline if we don't have the right plan that's able to get through both chambers and both caucuses," said Vos.
On January 4th, Walker vowed to commit $80 million in the state budget next year to build five smaller, regional facilities with at most 36 beds each.
If lawmakers do intend to move a plan forward this year, there's little time to waste. The Assembly may hold votes just four or five more times this year, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said Tuesday.
Democrats, who have been calling on the state to close Lincoln Hills for years, are asking why the governor changed his mind a few weeks before lawmakers leave Madison to hit the campaign trail.
"The question is, how many times is the governor going to change course on this issue?" said Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz.
Democrats have been frustrated that their own youth prison proposals have gone nowhere.
"We want a hearing. We want a chance to go through the legislative process," said Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee.
There remains a range of replacement options for Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Walker and many Democrats are calling for the state to build regional facilities. Assembly Republicans are also considering a plan that would allow counties to run their own programs.
"If we can look and say, 'Wow, they do it for a lower price with better outcomes than the model we have,' I'd like to at least explore that," Vos said.
Walker says his administration will seek proposals from architects next week for design concepts for the smaller, regional facilities. The governor does not need lawmakers' input to move forward with that aspect of his plan.