Why Vos, Fitzgerald Refused to Lead
They took away Gov. Evers’ power to oversee pandemic and then did nothing. Why?
The state Supreme Court decision taking away the power of Gov. Tony Evers and his top health officer to enforce a state stay-at-home order was a big victory for the Republican-led Legislature. It gave Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald what they had demanded for nearly a month, that Evers share power in determining what to do about the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet, once they got just what they called for, Vos and Fitzgerald used that power to do nothing. Why?
Back in March, Vos and Fitzgerald saw no reason for the Legislature to take action to combat the pandemic. “There’s no need for the Assembly to come in and have politicians grandstand on the issue,” Vos said.
Nor did they object to the statewide “Safer at Home” order passed on March 24 by Evers and his health services secretary Andrea Palm. Vos and Fitzgerald did not contend that Evers and Palm were breaking the law or taking unconstitutional measures.
On the contrary, Vos urged his constituents to obey the order. “We would like to thank the people of Wisconsin for coming together in this crisis. Whether you agree or disagree with the ‘Safer at Home’ order, we have to follow it. Do the best you can, so we can get through it quickly.”
Yet after Evers announced an extension of the Safer-at-Home order on April 17, and they began to sense seem push back from constituents, Republicans pounced on the order. “We’re angry, we’re frustrated and we’re trying to push back in every way that we can,” Vos said on WISN-AM (1130).
Suddenly Vos now saw such actions as illegal. “Nothing in the constitution or the statutes should give one person unlimited power to shutter our economy and cause people to lose their jobs,” he declared.
Evers needed to consult with legislators on such actions, Vos now declared to talk radio: “Basically what he does is he sits down with his minions inside his office, reaching out to very few people. They then make a decision and they come and tell us like it’s an edict, like we’re subjects of the king.”
Republicans threatened to vote against the appointment of Palm as top health official, some 17 months after she had been appointed by Evers, which would have essentially fired her. And Vos and Fitzgerald announced a lawsuit to stop Evers and Palm from issuing such state orders, arguing the Legislature had the power to oversee any such rules.
There was no basis in law for this suit, as as conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn noted in his dissent: “We are allowing the Legislature to argue its own laws are unconstitutional, a legal claim it has no authority to make,” he wrote. But the four other conservative justices did what Republicans wanted, as the court routinely does, and took away Evers power and gave it to the Legislative.
And then something funny happened. Or actually, didn’t happen. Evers met with Vos and Fitzgerald, as they had demanded, and the two Republicans didn’t seem to have any alternative plan to suggest.
In a tweet, Fitzgerald said he was “glad that we can finally engage in a back-and-forth discussion regarding the rules process, and look forward to continuing the dialogue.”
And Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said “the meeting with the governor went well. I’m sure you have heard Speaker Vos say that there shouldn’t be a governor’s plan or a Republican plan but a Wisconsin plan.”
But what is that plan? What exactly did Vos and Fitzgerald suggest in that discussion with the governor they had been waiting a month to have? The list of state orders issued by Evers is quite long and detailed. But both leaders declined to provide any details on any suggested changes. Evers told reporters the meeting didn’t include any decisions about what his administration and Republicans could agree on as a baseline for state action.
Vos and the Republicans have a long history of overriding local control, passing 128 measures doing this in just their first five years of power, from 2011 to 2016. So why the sudden change to embrace local control?
Because Evers had been too successful. As Urban Milwaukee has reported, Wisconsin had the lowest rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the Midwest and lower than most states in America. Meanwhile the growth in cases in Wisconsin was increasing at a slower rate than every state save Michigan in the Midwest — and Michigan was following similar policies to Wisconsin.
Evers, meanwhile, had announced a carefully calibrated and smartly named “Badger Bounce Back” plan that would reopen the state in phases, and had already announced rules for some non-essential businesses to open. And his administration announced the state was coming closer to meeting all metrics required before the state could be reopened more fully.
Meanwhile the latest Marquette University Law School poll showed that most in the state — 69 percent — said it was appropriate to close schools and businesses and restrict public gatherings, while just 26 percent said this was an overreaction to the pandemic. And 64 percent approved and 32 percent disapproved of Evers handling of the pandemic.
In short, overriding Evers or his plan would be a very unpopular thing to do. And Vos has hopes of running against Evers in 2022. So the only possible solution, politically, was to take away Evers power, hoping that reduces his approval rating, give the power to local governments and run away from the problem.
The result, Evers lamented, “will be massive confusion that will exist without a safe, statewide approach… I can’t imagine another state that is in this predicament where, essentially, mile by mile there may be different rules across all the state.”
And yet, he noted of Vos and Fitzgerald, “I thought both leaders felt very comfortable with the idea.”
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