Is tissue ban linked to GOP gerrymandering?

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Is the Republican drive to limit research using fetal tissue a product of the gerrymandered Wisconsin Legislature? Republicans have a partisan lock on the Legislature thanks to boundary lines they drew in 2011.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has promised the full Assembly will take up the issue in the October session. An Assembly committee has advanced a bill barring use of new lines of fetal tissue. It would be a felony to use such tissue for research if the if the bill becomes law.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank told a University of Wisconsin Board of Regents meeting it would drastically affect UW-Madison, driving away top researchers and hurting the reputation of the campus. “This is a direct hit,” she said.

The UW’s promising biomedical researchers will go to other universities if their work can’t be done at Madison, Blank said. She noted that the impact also would be felt in interdisciplinary research. If the teams are broken up with departures, other researchers will go elsewhere, she said.

“It’s bad for the university, it’s bad for Wisconsin; it’s bad for our citizens here and elsewhere,” said Regent Gerald Whitburn, who served in the cabinet of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

“Nothing is more important than to be defenders and protectors of academic freedom and the research of the university,” said Regent Chuck Pruitt. “This is an issue of profound importance and potentially very significant and easily overstated importance to this university.”

State Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, is optimistic his legislation will be enacted this fall. He said his Republican colleagues are concerned about the university’s efforts in opposing the measure. He accused UW officials of making “ridiculous” statements in their lobbying.

He also criticized the amount of lobbying by the university against the fetal tissue legislation and the amount of money being spent on that effort. Jacque has been the leader of anti-abortion legislation in the State Capitol.

The bid for felony penalties is part of the continuing university struggle with the state government. Last year, Gov. Scott Walker proposed changes in state law that define the mission of the University System. Initially he claimed it was a drafting error, but the tune changed when background information was made available to the media. The idea of change was dropped.

But the state budget bill cut taxpayer support for the university by $250 million and faculty tenure was eliminated.

The pending legislation provides an interesting challenge for Gov. Walker. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the chief business lobby and long an ally of the governor, is opposing the measure. But the anti-abortion groups in the state also have supported Walker at election time.

Would the governor side with business or anti-abortion forces on the new fetal tissue legislation?

Republicans have solid majorities in both the Assembly and the State Senate, thanks in part to favorable district boundary lines they created in 2011. One recent study said Democrats would need to get 65 percent of the vote in legislative elections to gain a majority of seats in a future election.

Those gerrymandered districts mean incumbent GOP legislators face greater elective threats in primaries than from Democrats in general elections.

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