In May, the Dane County Board passed a resolution condemning Wisconsin’s 19-century abortion ban. While that resolution was more symbolic than substantive, last week, the board took a more tangible step.
Last Thursday, the Dane County Board passed an ordinance limiting the county from giving any money to groups or programs that investigate or prosecute abortion seekers or providers.
Specifically, the ordinance would ban the county from contracting with any federal, state, or municipal agency that investigates, arrests, or prosecutes people seeking or providing an abortion. Additionally, the county would not be able to give or receive money from any agency that does so.
District 33 Supervisor Dana Pellebon was one of the 29 votes for the ordinance. She says that protecting reproductive rights is personally important to her, both as a woman and as the Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Center.
“We want to send a signal to the Legislature, we want to send a signal to the rest of the counties in Wisconsin that we want this strong of a stance because there needs to be consequences for people who prosecute people who are pregnant for utilizing abortive services,” Pellebon says.
Not everyone was on board with the plan. Five supervisors voted against it, with one abstention and two absent.
District 25 Supervisor Tim Kiefer voted against the ordinance change because he says that, depending on how the November election turns out, it could have dire consequences.
“About one-third of our operating budget comes in the form of grants from the state and federal government. In order to get any of these grants, the county has to in each instance enter into a contract with that agency. Depending on what the results will be in the November election, it is possible that in January of 2023 we may have a new governor or attorney general. If that were to happen, and they were to change the state government’s position in regards to enforcing this abortion law, the county government could be cut off from all state grant funding,” Kiefer says.
The wording of the ordinance is very specific, saying that it would not contract with any agencies that are working to investigate or prosecute someone seeking or providing an abortion. That means that, if Tim Michels does become governor in January, this ordinance would not immediately ban Dane County from contracting with the state as a whole.
But it does mean that if the state justice department started prosecuting abortion seekers or providers, all funding from the justice department would stop. And Kiefer says if the state Department of Health Services gets involved in prosecuting as well, that could cause major issues.
“The money for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, and the Dane County (District Attorney’s) Office comes in the form of grants from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and then a major part of the funding for the Dane County Human Services Department comes from other agencies in the state government. This has some real potential to create some major budget problems for the county government, and that’s why I voted no,” Kiefer says.
The ordinance also affects any contracts the county has with other counties across Wisconsin. Chuck Hicklin is the Chief Financial Officer with Dane County. He says that, as far as he knows, the ordinance would not affect any current contracts the county has with either the state or other counties.
“It would be difficult to monitor these because we would never know if there was an investigation going on, that would be confidential to the law enforcement agency or district attorney for whatever county that would be. We will just have to see how that unfolds in the future, I don’t practically know how we would know, other than an article in the newspaper, if there was an arrest or investigation by someone we contract with,” Hicklin says.
Another potential issue with the ordinance comes from the Sheriff’s Office itself.
Kiefer says that the ordinance would not have binding power over the Sheriff’s Office, even if it decided to investigate and arrest someone seeking or providing an abortion.
“Because the sheriff is an independent constitutional officer, the County Board is actually not allowed to put those restrictions on funding to the sheriff’s office. The County Board would not actually be able to enforce that part of the ordinance. Which I think is another problem. I don’t think the County Board should be passing ordinances that it’s totally clear from the beginning that are unenforceable,” Kiefer says.
But Pellebon responds:
“If those people are elected into office, I am worried about ramifications that go above and beyond just what is happening here. There are so many things that I am concerned about if the election does not go the way I feel it needs to be. I have looked at what the policies are for both candidates, and the policies for one of the candidates are, across the board, oppressive and will not bode well for us on the fiscal end on many different levels. So while yes, I am concerned about that on this level, to me it is an all-out concern if certain people get into office,” Pellebon says.
The ordinance still needs to be signed by Executive Joe Parisi, who has said he is in support of it. But Parisi says he would like to see the board pass an amendment to clean up any unintended impacts that may unfold after the November elections.
Photo courtesy: Brian Standing / WORT Flickr