Legislators, Emergency Directors to Review, Revise Wis. Disaster Laws

July 9, 2008

A new panel of state lawmakers, relief workers and emergency directors will start meeting this month to streamline Wisconsin’s disaster statutes and clarify how the stte legislature should work if a crisis forces it to meet outside Madison.

Wisconsin’s emergency statutes haven’t undergone a comprehensive review since the late 1980s, said Randi Milsap, a state Department of Military Affairs attorney.

Instead, they’ve been amended piecemeal. Much of the language has grown outdated and is poorly organized, sometimes leaving local officials confused, she said.

For example, the statutes define “bioterrorism” and “enemy action” but not “homeland security” or “terrorist,” Milsap said, and the section on mutual aid between agencies comes at the end of the statutes.

“If you’re in a situation where you need a quick answer, it’s not always logically in the place you’d look for it,” Milsap said.

The Legislative Council Special Committee on Emergency Management and Continuity of Government also plans to review statutes about how the government should run if the state Capitol becomes uninhabitable.

State law allows the governor to designate an alternate seat of government. The committee will consider reducing the number of lawmakers needed to do business and how they might convene by telephone or video conference.

Wisconsin’s Legislature has met in Madison since 1838, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. A fire damaged the Capitol in 1904, but the Legislature was able to reconvene in the building. During renovations between 1990 and 2001, the Assembly and Senate met in a Madison ballroom.

Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, the committee chairman, said anything can happen these days. Massive floods just last month covered scores of roads around southern Wisconsin for days, making travel to Madison difficult.

“I can envision scenarios where you can’t get to Madison,” Jauch said. “Let’s consider options.”

The rest of the committee’s tasks are largely undefined. The group is expected to flesh out its scope at its first meeting on July 30.

Jauch said he wants to examine responses to recent disasters, including the floods and an Interstate 90 traffic jam that left thousands of motorists stranded during a February snowstorm, and whether municipalities are getting the help they need to recover from disasters.

All statutory changes must pass the full Legislature and get Gov. Jim Doyle’s signature to become law.

Jerry Crotsenberg is the emergency director for Vernon County, which was still trying to recover from flash flooding last August when June’s floods hit.

He said the statutes are mostly understandable but not specific enough. He would especially like to see terrorism defined to help locals know what situations are covered by the law.

But as far as improving disaster response, he said, experience is the best teacher.

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