Melanie Conklin

Legislature Tries Again to Control Federal Stimulus Money

Evers twice vetoed bills to do this. Assembly’s latest bills violate federal rules, LRB warns.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Apr 14th, 2021 10:58 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

The state Assembly met Tuesday to vote on bills that lay out how Republican members want to spend federal money coming to Wisconsin through the American Rescue Plan Act, a power that falls to the governor and has specific requirements for how it can be allocated.

They continued to debate and pass these bills even after the Legislative Fiscal Bureau cautioned that the amount Republicans were proposing to spend in their bills totaled more than the state was receiving and likely violated conditions of the money, which have yet to be detailed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. And they concluded in the evening, by dictating to Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, how he should do his job.

The session was further proof to Democrats and Capitol observers that the primary goal of the body for this session appears to be fruitless grabs for executive power that stand little to no chance of being signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

While the meeting got underway, Gov. Tony Evers announced he was investing $100 million of the federal money under discussion, half of it into Main Street Bounceback grants to lure businesses to move into vacant downtown storefronts across the state. This effort targeting small businesses is on top of $600 million he already allocated for small business recovery.

When he vetoes the bills the Legislature spent many hours talking about — as everyone assumes he will do, not least because of the threat that they could cause the state to lose billions in recovery funding — it will be his third such veto.

In late March, when the Legislature sent him a bill granting itself control of the money,  Evers vetoed it and at the same time laid out a framework for spending $2.5 billion of the approximately $3.2 billion that the state controls (the rest goes to local governments) on economic recovery for broadband expansion, as well as business recovery.

“These funds don’t belong to me or any member of the Legislature, and these funds sure shouldn’t get caught up in another political back-and-forth where Republicans in the Legislature put politics before people or take nearly 300 days to act,” said Evers in a statement. “This money belongs to Wisconsinites and so many need this support — it would be unimaginable for Republicans to prevent these funds from going out to folks who need it the most.”

In February, Evers also vetoed bills from Republicans attempting to give their budget committee control of the federal money.

The new raft of GOP bills, some of which allocate funding to a sales tax holiday, paying off debt, tourism investments, giving money to property owners including landlords (such as Vos, who gave a passionate description of the good will of beleaguered landlords at his news conference) and efforts that are similar to what Evers has already prioritized with small business and infrastructure.

Repeated attempts to seize control from the governor might be cause to wonder if the Legislature is just really bad at accepting no as an answer. But at a news conference pre-session, Minority Leader Gordon Hintz offered an alternative interpretation of Republicans’ persistent efforts to control the federal money and why they would not become law.

“It’s not so much that we’re opposed to a lot of things that are prioritized here, but you don’t introduce these things and do them in a week because you’ve been spending the last two years throwing a fit because Gov. Evers is governor of our state,” said Hintz. “Yet every session we’ve had, there seems to be an instance where the legislation that’s being taken up by Republicans is aimed at thwarting Gov. Evers or making a political point.”

Vos praised the bills in a separate pre-session news conference, where he brought up member after member of his caucus, many of them newcomers this session, to tout each bill as their idea.

“The calendar is filled with good bills that we hope are going to send a clear message to the state of Wisconsin,” said Vos. “You are going to hear today that our Assembly Republicans are standing up for the citizens of our state who want sound investment with the billions of dollars of federal stimulus money coming to Wisconsin.”

Republicans complained during the debate that Evers’ plan lacked details, even though he has to wait for guidance from the federal government to make certain the state is in compliance so the money is not lost.

“Once again we’re here, once again, because the Republicans want to micromanage Gov. Evers,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer, calling the bills “sloppy legislation that was rushed to the floor because Republicans would rather tell Gov. Evers how to do his job than do their own.”

Spreitzer pointed out that the federal guidance has not come, so it isn’t clear, but the bills were being rushed through anyway. “These bills are an attempt to stop targeted, effective and meaningful relief … that Gov. Evers has been fleshing out even as we’re here on the floor.”

Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) echoed a number of his colleagues as he stumped for the GOP spending bills while simultaneously arguing that the government shouldn’t be spending the money because it would put future generations in debt and he was concerned for his four daughters and their generation.

The speaker called Evers “inept” in his handling of unemployment benefits in the pandemic, citing it as a reason he should not be trusted, then again pitched working together.

“Instead of one person deciding how these taxpayer dollars should be spent, we really believe we should have a robust debate, which we’ve been doing in our committee process and giving the opportunity for the public to actually see where their dollars will eventually go,” Vos said.  Looking back on decisions about past federal money tied to seat belt laws or the drinking age, he said both branches had a say, “as opposed to the current processes where unless Gov. Evers changes his ways and actually wants to work with the Legislature, he gets unilateral right to decide to take the money that no one person should have the right to dictate all the terms as to what that receipt should be.”

The effort to take over executive powers took a different form toward the end of the session as Republicans directed Attorney General Josh Kaul to join in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The suit is challenging a provision in the American Rescue Plan Act that they believe seizes taxing authority from the states, which would prohibit using the stimulus funds to cut state taxes.

“The Assembly is going to be taking up a resolution today that calls for an official request to the attorney general to join the multi-state lawsuit challenging the federal tax mandate that says that this branch of government, or frankly state government, does not have the ability to cut taxes even with our own residents,” said Vos.

Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu sent Kaul a letter requesting he join 13 other states in the lawsuit, which the attorney general rebuffed, making it clear he did not believe it was the right way to go.

“If the majority leader and speaker would like to use federal funding to cut taxes, they should expand BadgerCare, saving a huge amount of state tax money, rather than advocating for Wisconsin to join a strained lawsuit,” Kaul responded in a statement.  (Wisconsin would save more than $1.6 billion over the next biennial budget by accepting federal funds that come with expanding BadgerCare).

So the Assembly came back with a resolution in an attempt to force the hand of the state Department of Justice.

“Now here we have a written law that actually says that we can do this,” said Rep. Tyler August. (R-Lake Geneva).  “If people vote against this resolution they are in essence saying that they think it’s OK for the federal government to tell states how to run their budgets and how to tax their citizens. … The attorney general pretty much ignored the request from the speaker and the Senate majority leader and doesn’t want to protect the interests of the taxpaying citizens of the state that he’s elected to serve, so we thought we’d help him out a little.”

Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) shot back at Vos, who authored the resolution, saying, “I’m trying to figure out what the speaker wants to do when he grows up.” Turning to him she added, “You’re not the governor. You’re not the attorney general. … Stop this power trip you’re on and just do the job you were hired by the people to do.”

Then, six hours into the meeting, Vos began a civics lesson on the rights of state governments to dictate their own policies and federal/state/municipal powers and interactions.

“The basic fundamental idea of saying that states should be preeminent is something that all of us should be for …[if not] well then what is the point of having a legislature if you’re willing to cede your authority to 435 members of Congress?” he concluded.

The attorney general, under the resolution, is forced to join the lawsuit, Vos stated before Republicans passed the resolution on a 56 to 36 vote, potentially setting up further battles or a lawsuit. Vos said in passing at his news conference that he had talked to attorneys on the matter and Kaul is likely to see it differently.

Hintz gave his summary of the events of the session seven hours earlier before the first role call had even taken place: “This isn’t how we do things and today is purely about politics and not about reality.”

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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