Wisconsin Republicans want control over federal virus money

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The fight over control of Wisconsin’s share of the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package ramps up Tuesday in the state Legislature, with Republicans voting on a bill to take away Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ability to decide how to spend the estimated $5.7 billion coming for state and local governments.

The GOP-controlled Legislature was also slated to give final approval to measures that would prohibit employers and the government from requiring people to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and not allow churches to be shut down due to the pandemic. The Assembly was also voting on a bill requiring the governor to submit a plan for when all state employees will be back doing their jobs in offices, rather than from home.

Evers has promised to veto the measure giving the Legislature power over how the federal money is spent, and he’s expected to veto the others as well.

The governor has the power under current law to control how Wisconsin’s $5.7 billion share of the federal relief bill will be spent. About $3.2 billion is earmarked for state government, while another $2.5 billion is coming to counties and municipalities. Wisconsin previously received about $2 billion under the 2020 stimulus bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES.

Evers had control of that money, which was spent on a wide variety of things including buying protective equipment, aid to small businesses, nursing homes, hospitals, renters, movie theaters and live music venues. Evers has said he plans to take a similar approach with the latest round of funding, directing it to those who need it, but he hasn’t provided details as state and local officials await more guidance from the federal government.

The bill up Tuesday in both the Senate and Assembly would require the governor to submit a plan for spending the money to the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee for approval.

Republicans have argued that the state doesn’t need the money but since it’s getting it, the Legislature should play a role in how it’s spent just like it did in 2009 when approving how money from the federal stimulus was spent during the Great Recession. Republican legislative leaders testified in support of the measure earlier this month.

“These future federal dollars will have significant and direct impacts on our families, schools, businesses and communities,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos testified. “This common sense legislation will provide a more transparent process for the distribution of these funds and will allow the citizens of our state to have a voice in the process.

Evers and other Democrats counter that it can help businesses and people who continue to be hurt by the pandemic and putting the Legislature in control of how it’s spent would only slow or stop those efforts.

Three virus-related bills passed last month by the Senate were up for final approval Tuesday in the Assembly, which will send them to Evers. One requires Evers to come up with a plan for all state employees to return to the office. Another prohibits local health officers from taking any action to close or forbid gatherings in places of worship to control coronavirus outbreaks.

A third bill that already passed the Senate and is being taken up in the Assembly would prohibit state or local health officials from requiring anyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Another bill scheduled for a vote in the Assembly would prohibit employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated. That has cleared a Senate committee but not been voted on by the full Senate.

Doctors, public health officials, business leaders and others have all come out against the bills barring the ordering of vaccinations. Supporters include the anti-abortion groups Wisconsin Family Action and Pro-Life Wisconsin as well as the anti-vaccination group called Vaccine Choice Wisconsin.

More than 25% of people age 16 and over in Wisconsin has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with around 15% full vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Those eligible for the vaccine increased by more than 2 million people on Monday to include those with a wide array of preexisting conditions. Everyone age 16 and up is slated to be eligible no later than May 1.