MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday, March 23 to take control of the state's share of the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package away from Gov. Tony Evers.
Instead, the vote gives state lawmakers the ability to decide how to spend the estimated $5.7 billion coming for state and local governments.
The GOP-controlled Assembly also gave final approval to a measure that would prohibit the government from requiring people to be vaccinated for COVID-19. It was also slated to pass bills that would ban employers from requiring vaccinations 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.
"The intent behind them seems to be pandering toward the same kind of anti-science, anti-public health position that’s out there at the worst time possible," said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, at a news conference before debate began.
Gov. 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 an additional $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.
Gov. Evers had control of that money, which was spent on a variety of things, including buying protective equipment, aid to small businesses, nursing homes, hospitals, renters, movie theaters and live music venues. Gov. Evers has said he plans to take a similar approach with the latest round of funding, pending guidance from the federal government.
The bill passed by the Senate on a party-line vote that is also up in the Assembly would require the governor to submit a plan for spending the money to the Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee for approval.
Democratic state Sen. Robert Wirch predicted Republicans would simply find a way to funnel the money to rich people rather than the middle class. Sen. Jon Erpenbach said it made no sense to pass the bill given that Gov. Evers plans to veto it.
"So what’s the point?" he said. "It just makes you look like power-grabbing idiots."
Wisconsin Capitol in Madison
Republicans argued 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 during the Great Recession was spent.
"Unfortunately, it seems like the Democrats want to have a piggy bank where they can choose to give the money with no oversight, no transparency, no ability to judge whether it’s the best decision until after the money is out the door," Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said before debate began Tuesday.
Gov. Evers and other Democrats say giving the Legislature control over the funding would only slow it from helping those in need.
Other virus-related bills passed last month by the Senate were up for final approval Tuesday in the Assembly, which would send them to Gov. Evers. One requires Gov. 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. The third bill, passed on a 60-33 vote, would prohibit state or local health officials from requiring anyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
All Republicans voted for it. The only Democrats who voted for it were Nick Milroy and Sylvia Ortiz-Velez.
Vos, in arguing for the bill, said the "coercive power of the government" should not be used to mandate vaccines. Everyone should do their own research and make up their own minds about whether to get it, he said. Vos said he planned to be vaccinated and believed a vast majority of the public would also.
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 Vaccine Choice Wisconsin.
More than 25% of people age 16 and over in Wisconsin have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 15% fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services.