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Widows implore lawmakers to pass police insurance bill

Posted at 1:47 PM, Sep 17, 2019

MADISON (AP) —The widows of three Wisconsin police officers slain on duty are imploring lawmakers to pass a bill that would require municipalities to pay health insurance premiums for slain officers' survivors.

Ashley Birkholz, Kara Weiland and Charlette Nennig told the Senate judiciary and Assembly insurance committees during a joint hearing Tuesday that when they lost their husbands their worlds fell apart. In addition to mourning, they had to deal with the loss of their health insurance. Weiland said first responders should know their families will be taken care of if they die.

The bill would require municipalities and Marquette University to cover premiums for slain officers' spouses and children. The state would reimburse the locals from a public safety fee communications providers collect from customers.

Lawmakers are considering amending the bill to include all law enforcement officers, including officers employed by the state and the University of Wisconsin System, and emergency medical technicians. The amendment also would reimburse the officers' employer through general state tax dollars rather than the public safety fee.

Craig Birkholz, a Fond du Lac officer, was shot in a standoff in March 2011. Police were called to a house to investigate a sexual assault. Shortly after they arrived, 30-year-old James Cruckson opened fire on them, killing Birkholz. A six-hour standoff ensued before officers discovered Cruckson dead inside the home from an apparently self-inflected gunshot wound.

Jason Weiland was working as an Everest Metro Police detective in March 2017 when 45-year-old Nengmy Vang shot and killed him. Angered that his wife refused to sign divorce papers, Vang shot two of her co-workers, Dianne Look and Karen Barclay, at a bank in Rothschild then drove to Schofield and killed her attorney, Sara Quirt Sann. He then holed up in his apartment in Weston and shot Weiland as the detective was trying to set up a perimeter around the building. Officers stormed the apartment and killed Vang in an exchange of gunfire.

LeRoy Nennig was a Sheboygan County sheriff's lieutenant. He was killed in August 2004 when a car hit his motorcycle while he was responding to a car fire.

The municipalities or universities would be obligated to cover the premiums until the spouse reaches age 65 and the surviving children turn 26. Current state law provides similar benefits to firefighters' immediate survivors.

Under the bill, the state would reimburse the local authorities from a public safety fee that communication providers and wireless retailers collect from customers. The fee has generated about $52 million annually since 2011, according to a state Department of Revenue fiscal estimate attached to the bill. The department said it could not estimate how much the bill would cost, however, because it doesn't have data on how many spouses or children might qualify.

The Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and the Wisconsin County Police Association have registered in favor of the measure, according to Wisconsin Ethics Commission records. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Verizon, AT&T Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Counties Association have registered as neutral. No groups have registered in opposition.

Senate Republicans have been pushing similar legislation requiring local governments to cover slain officers' survivors' health insurance costs since 2011, but nothing has cleared the Assembly. Fiscal estimates attached to the previous bills have put the annual costs as high as $1.7 million, although that bill would have covered emergency medical technicians as well as police.