By Patrick Marley and Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel
Madison – The enrollment cap on a state long-term care program for the elderly and disabled would be lifted, under a bill the state Assembly approved early Wednesday in an overnight session.
The Senate earlier approved the measure, but it will have to return to that house because the Assembly amended it. The Senate is expected to act on it later Wednesday or Thursday and send it to Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker announced the $72 million plan to resume enrolling people in Family Care in December following an order from federal officials. Walker and Republican lawmakers had capped the program on July 1 to hold down rising costs, but now say they’ve come up with other ways to control them.
As part of a raft of legislation as the session ends, the Assembly also signed off on a wolf hunting bill aimed at calming the concerns of many hunters and landowners as the wolf population continues to rise.
Family Care provides services to help the elderly and disabled stay in their homes or other community settings rather than enter nursing homes.
The cap on enrollment frustrated local officials and advocates for the elderly and the disabled. Shortly after the budget passed in June, Walker said he hoped to modify or drop the cap this year.
Family Care and other so-called community-based programs operate under federal waivers that allow states to offer services not required by law.
Family Care is available in 57 of the state’s 72 counties. The bill would allow the remaining counties to participate in Family Care in the future subject to review by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
The bill passed 87-6 just before 2 a.m. One of those voting against the bill was Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee.
Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) said he feared that Vos’ opposition to the bill would mean he would block the expansion of Family Care in his role as the committee’s chairman.
“That (vote against the bill) tells about his real motives here,” Richards said of Vos.
Family Care and other Medicaid health programs for the poor have an overall $141 million shortfall in state money over the next year and a half. The Walker administration says it is looking for ways to cut spending to bridge that gap.
The legislation on wolves paves the way to the first hunting season since wolves disappeared from the state more than 50 years ago. Lawmakers passed it 69-25 at 3:30 a.m., sending it to Walker.
Wisconsin took over management of wolves on Jan. 27 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from a federal list of endangered species.
Tensions have escalated over the gray wolf as its population has soared and as wolves have killed increasing numbers of livestock, pets and hunting dogs.
In 2011 alone, wolves killed 20 dogs, mostly hunting dogs. The proposed hunting rules are modeled after those used for bear hunting.
The season would start Oct. 15 and end in February. Wolves could be hunted with firearms, bows, crossbows and leg traps. Bait, dogs and electronic calls also would be legal.
But some groups opposed to wolf hunting said the season lasts too long and would extend into the breeding season. They complained that the bill has been rushed through the Legislature and that a provision that allows for night hunting is unsafe. They also said that it will do little to address problems with livestock operators.
It’s unclear how many wolves could be killed, but the bill allows the Department of Natural Resources to close the season within 24 hours, if necessary.
A wolf hunting license would cost $100 for residents and $500 for non-residents. It would cost $10 to apply for a wolf license.
Potential hunters would be selected in a drawing. There are an estimated 800 wolves in Wisconsin.
The state’s management goal, set in the 1990s, had been 350 outside of Indian reservations. At the time of European settlement, the DNR estimated there were 3,000 to 5,000 wolves in the state. As settlers moved in, so did efforts to kill wolves.
Wisconsin paid a bounty on wolves from 1865 to 1957. Wolves were considered extinct in the state by 1960.
They returned by natural in-migration, and by 1980, the DNR estimated there were about 25 wolves in five packs in the state.
Journal Sentinel reporters John Diedrich and Jason Stein contributed to this report.