GOP Lawmakers Seek Control of Federal Aid
Proposed constitutional amendment gives Legislature control over spending federal funds.
A proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution giving the Legislature broad control over spending federal funds sent to the state will get a step closer Thursday with an Assembly committee vote.
Republican authors of the proposal contend it would restore the Legislature’s rightful place in deciding how the state spends the money, now largely controlled by the governor.
“The intent is very clear, is that the Legislature should be involved in overseeing how federal funds are spent,” said Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), the lead Senate author of the proposal, as he testified at Tuesday’s hearing before the Assembly Constitution and Ethics Committee.
A recurring drama in the 2021-22 legislative biennium has been the Republican majority’s attempts to tell Gov. Tony Evers how to spend Wisconsin’s $2.5 billion share from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
GOP lawmakers have passed several bills appropriating ARPA funds for a variety of purposes and introduced many more. The handful that made it all the way through the Legislature passed on mostly party lines, and the governor has vetoed all of them.
Evers has been able to decide largely on his own how to spend the ARPA money thanks to a state law first enacted in the 1930s and expanded in subsequent decades. Underscoring how he has made use of not just ARPA funds but other federal relief to the state since the pandemic began two years ago, Evers on Wednesday released a summary of the $4.5 billion his administration has spent so far.
The proposed amendment won’t give current GOP lawmakers a chance to override his ARPA spending. But it would rewrite the relationship of future governors and the Legislature when faced with such decisions.
“This joint resolution would be the first in the process to restore the balance in how we manage money coming in from the federal government, and take us back to the ‘30s, when we actually changed this because of the Great Depression,” said Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), the lead Assembly author.
Senate Republicans go first
The proposal has already passed the state Senate on a party-line vote, and the measure is expected to go to the full Assembly within weeks. To be enacted, it will have to pass both houses of the Legislature again in the 2023-24 biennium, then gain the approval of Wisconsin voters at the polls. Because it’s not a bill, but instead a joint resolution — AJR-112 in the Assembly and SJR-84 in the Senate — it does not require the governor’s approval.
In the debate Jan. 25 before the Senate vote, Democrats who spoke against the amendment portrayed it as a partisan Republican maneuver aimed at the Democratic governor, which Kooyenga denied. The critics also suggested involving the Legislature would require a laborious process and slow down the distribution of the relief money.
At Tuesday’s Assembly hearing, Kooyenga acknowledged that argument. He suggested that the amendment addressed the concern, however, in a manner that was similar to the Joint Finance Committee’s role in giving follow-up approval on spending items in the budget after the budget is passed.
“You can kind of think of it as a process where the Joint Finance Committee can do a passive review process,” Kooyenga said.
The proposed amendment consists of two sentences: “The legislature may not delegate its sole power to determine how federal moneys shall be expended. No executive branch officer or department may make an initial allocation of federal moneys made available to this state without the approval of a joint committee of the legislature designated by legislative rule.”
Targeting federal spending
Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) questioned Kooyenga about how broad the amendment was intended to be. The University of Wisconsin receives “over a billion dollars in research grants and competitive awards,” Hebl noted, adding that subjecting individual grants to the approval process would create a competitive disadvantage for the university in pursuing them. “Is it your intention to include those billions of [dollars in] grants?”
“It’s not our intention,” Kooyenga replied, adding that laws to “wrap around” the amendment would be one way to “make that intent more clear” after the amendment is enacted. “The intention is not to have the Legislature get involved with each individual grant.”
The intent, Kooyenga said, was to reinforce the Legislature’s “duty — and that duty’s in the [state] Constitution. The duty is to oversee this money that is being sent to us.”
“This doesn’t do that,” Hebl interjected.
“Yes it does,” Kooyenga retorted.
And at that moment, his argument pivoted — no longer centered on the roles of the Legislature and the governor, but instead pitting the state Legislature against the federal government.
“This money that our country is spending, both at the federal level and the state, is absolutely not sustainable,” Kooyenga said. “And that is putting the republic in jeopardy by being absolutely financially reckless. And all this is saying that we, as legislators, should be ashamed of ourselves for collecting a paycheck and getting state benefits, when we should actually be better advocates for taxpayer dollars that are spent.”
Without offering specifics, he claimed that in the pandemic relief spending there have been “billions of dollars in fraud,” that the federal funds were responsible for inflation that “is jaw-dropping.” Calling expressions of caution about the effect of the amendment on the UW system “some sort of…decoy,” Kooyenga added: “You know what’s going to hurt the UW is if there’s insolvency in the state or the federal government.”
While the alarm Kooyenga expressed at the federal pandemic relief spending has become a stock-in-trade in conservative and Republican circles, it is far from economic consensus.
Menzie Chinn, an economist with the Robert M. LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is skeptical of the idea that federal pandemic relief spending is the primary cause of recent inflation.
“It’s certainly part of the explanation – but other economies (UK, Euro Area) have also seen an acceleration of inflation,” Chinn says, with higher oil prices, continued supply disruptions and other factors being the main contributors. “One could argue that part of the inflation is due to too little spending, say, on childcare support, which would enable parents to work.”
Mark Copelovitch, a La Follette School political scientist whose work looks at the intersection of economics and politics, says that the ability of the U.S. to finance its debt at virtually no interest shows that the marketplace — essentially, the world’s lenders — isn’t worried about the sustainability of the economy.
He credits pandemic relief, in the form of direct aid to households as well as other forms of support as well as directly to the state, for preserving incomes, keeping businesses going in the pandemic, and enabling the economy to recover much more quickly than it might have otherwise.
“The reason we have this big surplus now in Wisconsin and elsewhere is because all the other things basically prevented people’s incomes from going down — which meant tax revenue didn’t crater like we worried it was going to,” Copelovitch says.
The alternative could have been no money to support people or businesses, and likely prolonged, and higher, unemployment, he adds. “Then people’s incomes would be a lot lower. And we would have been facing the big revenue hole at the state level that people were worried about.”
Clipping the governor’s control of federal funds was originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner.
2 thoughts on “GOP Lawmakers Seek Control of Federal Aid”
To Republicans, the State Constitution seems little more than a series of suggestions to be casually amended anytime it suits their partisan purposes. So much for applying the term “conservative’ to any in their ranks. “Radical Power Mongers” is a far more fitting description.
Republicans are totalitarians. They should be treated as such.