Wisconsin Legislature Backtracks on Repealing Coronavirus Emergency

The revelation that millions of dollars in federal food stamp aid would be lost forced GOP lawmakers to change course on terminating the Democratic governor’s coronavirus public health emergency.

Hunger Task Force workers distribute food at McGovern Park in Milwaukee on Thursday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — Wisconsin Republicans on Thursday abruptly dropped plans to terminate a public health emergency the Democratic governor declared over the coronavirus pandemic when it came to light that millions of dollars in federal food stamp funds would be jeopardized if they went through with it.

After the GOP-majority Wisconsin Senate voted on Tuesday in favor of a joint resolution to end Governor Tony Evers’ latest public health emergency order and subsequent mask mandate, the Assembly—also controlled by Republicans—was slated to do the same Thursday morning. Evers would not have been able to veto the resolution if it passed.

But that plan was dropped for the time being after it was revealed that almost $50 million per month of federal money for low-income and out-of-work Wisconsinites’ food assistance would be jeopardized in the process, as first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel late on Wednesday.

Pandemic-relief legislation passed last year by Congress included a provision that gave extra funding to states for food stamps, but that funding is contingent on states having emergency public health orders in place.

A memo from Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau pointed this out after state Representative Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, requested the agency perform an analysis regarding the impact on food stamp benefits as a result of nixing the emergency order declared by Evers on Jan. 19.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, 242,507 Wisconsin households will receive emergency allotment benefits for January 2021, totaling just over $49 million.

“As with regular FoodShare benefits, the emergency allotment benefits are entirely federally funded,” the agency’s memo said. “Without a state emergency or disaster declaration FoodShare recipients are not eligible for these additional benefits.”

Thursday’s Assembly session was scheduled for 9 a.m. and included on the docket a vote to repeal the state’s emergency order and mask mandate. But it was delayed nearly four and a half hours as GOP lawmakers caucused behind closed doors. After emerging, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, told media the chamber would temporarily table the issue right before the session began.

The proposal to eliminate the emergency declaration and mask mandate—one of the few tools readily available to stymie the spread of Covid-19—raised eyebrows before Thursday’s events, not the least from Democratic lawmakers before it passed the Senate.

Twenty-three lobbies had publicly opposed the measure as of Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon, that group—including organizations representing health care workers, educators, churches and the federally recognized Oneida Nation—had grown to 46. Not one organization has come out in support of scrapping the statewide public health emergency called to fight a virus with multiple highly transmissible variants spreading in the U.S. and for which vaccine rollout at the federal and state level has so far been disjointed.

Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services reported 1,802 new cases of the coronavirus with 24 deaths on Thursday, bringing the totals to 538,348 and 5,811, respectively.

When the Assembly session got underway on Thursday, the chamber voted 57-36 in favor of a bill whose stated design is to prioritize and facilitate Covid-19 vaccination. The massive undertaking has been particularly slow-moving in the Badger State, which Vos called “a national embarrassment” on the Assembly floor, blaming the Evers administration for its shortcomings.

Gordon Hintz, a Democratic representative from Oshkosh and the Assembly’s minority leader, was the first to acknowledge that the chamber was not voting to repeal the mask mandate, which he called “a win for public health.”

Representative Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, largely blamed former President Donald Trump’s administration for vaccine shortages, chalking up Wisconsin’s stalled vaccination program as an issue of supply rather than ineptitude. Subeck said the vaccine bill “does not solve the problem we have” and instead adds more red tape and confusion and unfairly blames Evers for faults in the program.

Joe Sanfellipo, a Republican representative from New Berlin who helped write the bill, called Subeck’s statements “misinformation” and charged lawmakers who vote against the bill as laying a smoke screen for the governor.

In the Senate, which convened just before the Assembly around noon on Thursday, Republican lawmakers passed a larger Covid-19 relief bill which included a last-minute amendment they said would allow them to end the unilateral emergency order without also forfeiting federal aid.

Representative Steven Nass, R-Whitewater, chief author of the resolution to repeal the governor’s emergency order, said the amendment covers the state if they terminate the order such that the feds cannot take their money back. Nass insinuated that they can do so in part because they believe the Wisconsin Supreme Court is preparing to rule that Evers’ current emergency declaration—and every other one he enacted since the high court struck down an extension to the first one last May—is illegal.

While some level of compromise was reached between Republicans and the governor with the Senate’s version of the relief bill, Democrats in the chamber still took issue with many provisions, including those that would try to force state employees to return to work in person, force the governor to make a plan to open the state capitol building to the public, tighten local control for closing schools and waive liability for employers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Senator Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, appeared virtually and pointed out that Evers is almost certain to veto the relief bill if the Assembly passes it, which is not set in stone as of Thursday.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, concurred that the bill has no chance of seeing the light of day and said it does not actually do anything to meaningfully address Covid-19.

“The emperor has no clothes, we aren’t doing anything,” Bewley said. “There will be no victory lap today.”

Nass retorted that if Evers vetoes the bill, he will be the one throwing away federal food stamp funds, not the legislature.

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