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Wisconsin Republicans, Evers differ in response to shootings



AP FILE - Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, center, watches as Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers during the Governor's State of the State speech at the state Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Madison, Wis. Behind Evers is Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August, left, R-Lake Geneva, and Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans who continue to largely dismiss Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call to pass gun safety legislation introduced a series of bills Tuesday designed to bolster mental health services in the state, a move they said was not in response to recent mass shootings.

Evers has called for the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would establish a process to take guns away from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others. But Republican legislative leaders have either dodged questions about whether they support such ideas or refused to answer, instead emphasizing the need to improve mental health services.

On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Tittl, chairman of the Assembly’s mental health committee, was the latest Republican to refuse to answer questions about whether he supports a universal background check. And he said a package of mental health bills that he and other Republican lawmakers and advocates unveiled was part of a yearslong push to improve mental health services and not a response to the shootings this month in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead.

Tittl noted that he first served on a legislative task force on mental health in 2013.

“We have cared all along about mental health,” Tittl said. “This is not a reaction at all to any of the shootings. This is basically a reaction to what we’re working on.”

The bills would make grants available for mental health centers and nonprofits across the state as a way to ensure services are available; provide a $100,000 income tax deduction for psychiatrists and double for those in more rural, underserved areas to entice more of them to work in Wisconsin; and update standards and practices for psychologists. Those who spoke in support of the measures at a Capitol news conference included a person who said he’s been battling mental illness for more than 25 years, the leader of the state Boys & Girls Clubs and the head of a Painting Pathways Clubhouse that provides mental health services.

Last week, Evers called Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to discuss passing the “red flag” and universal background check bills. Evers and Vos were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, while a meeting with Fitzgerald had not yet been scheduled, the governor’s spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said.

Vos said last week that he hoped to find common ground with Evers on mental health issues, which he called the “real problem,” and not taking away rights of gun owners. Fitzgerald has not committed to taking any action, but like Vos he has been skeptical of universal background checks and “red flag” laws in the past.

Vos and Fitzgerald, appearing together at a forum Tuesday, did not name the background check or “red flag” bills as priorities for the remainder of the legislative session. Vos repeated that he did not want to take away Second Amendment rights. Instead, Vos said he wanted to focus on topics that will bring Republicans and Democrats together such as water quality, increasing adoptions and suicide prevention. Fitzgerald said he wants to work on criminal justice reform and issues facing the state prison system.

But Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said lawmakers should do “anything possible” to combat gun violence. He said Democrats will introduce those two bills and were hoping for bipartisan support.

Republicans have been wary to talk about gun control measures since the shootings. Last week, Republican Sen. Jerry Petrowski dodged questions about whether he would support universal background checks, saying he would have to see the bill first. But Petrowski, like many Republicans, said he thinks the emphasis should be on mental health services.

This story has been corrected to remove the reference to Vos starting a mental health task force this year. Vos did not launch a task force.

Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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