MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers will sign a Republican bill removing the term “mental retardation” from five state agencies’ administrative codes even though he’s already issued an executive order that does just that, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Evers issued the order late Tuesday afternoon, stunning GOP legislators who have been pushing their bill toward floor votes in both the Senate and Assembly. The measure’s authors, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and state Rep. John Jagler, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, accused the governor of copying them and vowed to keep working on the legislation.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor would “happily” sign the bill if it reaches his desk. She said Evers believes protecting Wisconsin residents’ dignity is more important than who gets to claim credit.
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.”
Evers’ order, on the other hand, requires all state agencies to remove “mental retardation” and its derivatives from their codes and to replace the term with “intellectual disability.” Jagler said all 87 mentions of “mental retardation” in state code is in the rules governing the five agencies in the bill, however, so the legislation and the order accomplish the same thing.
However, the order requires the agencies to prepare scope statements — broad descriptions of impending rule changes — and gives them three months to submit the documents to Evers for his approval. It can take weeks more to make the actual revisions.
Jagler said the bill would get the revisions done far faster than the order since the measure would immediately amend the agencies’ codes. It also would provide a more permanent fix than an order a future governor might rescind, he said. That’s a far-fetched scenario, though, since it would mean restoring “mental retardation” to the code.
Baldauff said some Democrats asked the governor to address the issue through an executive order. Asked to name them, she pointed to Rep. Chris Taylor, a Madison Democrat. Taylor explained she advised Evers to accomplish the changes through an order because the legislative process can bog down.
“This whole thing is so ridiculous,” Taylor said. “We all want the same thing. Why don’t we do a kumbaya and celebrate?”
The Senate government operations committee approved the bill on Feb. 26, clearing the way for a vote in that chamber. The Assembly Committee on State Affairs held a public hearing on the proposal Wednesday afternoon. Jagler began the proceeding by saying he wished he had known about Evers’ order and the governor should have told the families planning to speak at the hearing about it.
No one else mentioned the order and no one spoke against the bill. Two intellectually disabled people spoke in favor of it, however. Brock Mielke, a high school senior from Hartland with Down syndrome, called the “R-word” offensive. Yael Kerzan, of Pardeeville, said she has the genetic disorder Williams syndrome and that the “R-word” is horrible and makes her feel bad.
“When I was in high school, the mean kids would call me the R-word behind my back,” she said. “I felt terrible. It is hard for me to learn easy things, but I work hard and never give up.”