Wisconsin Examiner

Legislators Agree on Opioid Plan, Still Withhold PFAS, Hospital Funds

Standoff between Republicans on Joint Finance Committee and Gov. Evers continues.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - May 8th, 2024 12:28 pm
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Republican state lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget committee rewrote the spending plan Tuesday for Wisconsin’s next allotment of opioid settlement money, throwing out items the state health department had pushed for and instead boosting spending on existing programs to address addiction to the powerful drugs.

The committee’s GOP leaders also once again snubbed Gov. Tony Evers’ call to release money to address PFAS contamination and support health care providers in western Wisconsin.

While unity marked much of the official action in the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday, orchestrated friction was nonetheless the dominant theme of the day in the state Capitol.

Democrats in particular highlighted the fact that committee Republicans walked away from Evers’ attempt to push them to release $140 million for PFAS remediation and health care, which remains under the committee’s control.

“This marks the second time in a month Republicans chose to ignore the governor’s call to release funds that have already been approved by the Legislature,” the four finance committee Democrats said in a joint statement.

Democrats are also mounting a political campaign targeting the Republican lawmakers on the committee. “It’s past time for Republicans to get out of the way and allow this funding to be put to use to keep our communities healthy and strong,” said Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) at a press conference Tuesday morning with candidates challenging two of the GOP committee members.

The Republicans have adamantly rejected any blame for the standoff over the PFAS and health care support funds. “We’re not holding anything up,” said Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), the finance committee co-chair, at a press conference just before the committee met.

Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), the other co-chair, asserted that because Evers vetoed legislation outlining how the PFAS money would be spent — which included a provision weakening the power of the Department of Natural Resources to punish polluters that Republicans insisted was necessary to protect “innocent landowners” — “the decision to stop this program right now is on him.”

Opioid spending

Each year Wisconsin receives a share of the money that opioid manufacturers and distributors pay into a national settlement fund after a coalition of state and local governments sued the businesses, alleging they were culpable for the ballooning epidemic of opioid addiction. A state law authorizing Wisconsin to receive and spend the money requires the health department to subject its plan for each year’s installment to the finance committee for approval.

As drawn up by the Department of Health Services (DHS) and submitted in April, the $36 million that Wisconsin will receive for 2025 would have included $5 million for support and resource centers for families of people with opioid addiction and $5 million for peer support services in opioid addiction programs.

The plan that passed the committee Tuesday omits both of those. “We’re not going to be putting money into new programs,” Marklein told reporters before the meeting. “We’re going to instead reinvest in ongoing programs that work.”

The committee plan reduces spending on community, education and after-school prevention to $3.5 million (from the originally proposed $5 million), adding specifications for a competitive grant program for community based prevention. The Department of Public Instruction’s portion of that would be $1 million, half of what DHS had proposed.

The revised plan adds $750,000 for DHS to spend on public campaigns to discourage opioid use.

Marklein referred to past anti-drug advertising campaigns, known by the tag lines “Just Say No” and “This is your brain on drugs,” as well as anti-smoking campaigns that depicted lungs ravaged by tobacco. “We need to address opioids in the same way,” he said.

The finance committee plan increases spending on harm-reduction measures, such as overdose treatment medication and testing strips for fentanyl, to $6 million. It allocates $3 million for law enforcement agencies, tripling the DHS plan’s proposal.

It allocates $7.7 million for building projects, including for treatment facilities and recovery housing, more than double what DHS had proposed, and specifies that 30% of that money must go to counties with fewer than 500,000 residents.

The finance committee plan also sets aside $2.75 million to cover the room and board costs for Medicaid patients enrolled in residential drug treatment programs, and includes $3 million for programs that use medication to help people with addictions. And it adds $600,000 for a Medical College of Wisconsin program that provides care before and after birth to women with opioid use disorder.

“I think this is really interesting,” said Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) of the Republicans’ plan. “Unfortunately I think there are some pieces that I would have liked to have seen included or maintained at the [original DHS-proposed] levels.” He singled out the proposals that were cut completely as well as the reduction in school-based prevention spending in the final plan.

“There’s $36 million to be spent and all $36 million is being spent in this proposal,” responded Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan). “So we’re not talking about additional funding. We’re talking about fully supporting the initiatives from the funds that are allocated to us through this program.”

Despite the objections that they raised, Democrats joined the Republicans in voting for the plan.

The rest of the committee’s agenda consisted of releasing to agencies money already built into the state budget but requiring a formal approval from the committee to spend the funds. Among them were $6 million for driver training grants by the Department of Transportation; $2 million for a test program that law enforcement personnel who encounter people in mental health crises can use to connect virtually with mental health professionals, and nearly $20 million to launch oral health training programs across the Wisconsin Technical College System.

All of those also passed with unanimous votes.

PFAS, hospital funding logjams persists

The comity ended with the meeting’s adjournment, however. As Democrats sought to turn the spotlight back on blocked PFAS and hospital funding, Republicans dug in their heels.

In April Evers vetoed legislation connected with how $125 million set aside in the 2023-25 budget to address contamination from PFAS chemicals would be spent. Among his objections to the measure, he cited language that Democrats, the administration and environmental groups argue would prevent the state Department of Natural Resources from taking action against those responsible for PFAS contamination.

The administration has submitted two plans to spend the PFAS funds to the finance committee, the most recent one in February.

On Monday, Evers called a special meeting of the finance committee to take up both the PFAS spending and $15 million for health care providers in the Chippewa Valley after the closure of two hospitals there. Evers set the start of the meeting to immediately follow Tuesday’s scheduled session.

Evers has been pointing to language in state law that says the finance committee “shall hold special meetings upon the call of the governor” or its co-chairs.

Republicans have rejected the claim, leaning on a Legislative Reference Bureau memo that concludes the governor cannot require the co-chairs to convene a meeting or take up any particular matter.

McGuire reminded the committee of the governor’s call early in Tuesday’s meeting and was ignored. When Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) referred later to “the next meeting,” Marklein replied, “There’s only one meeting today and you’re in it right now.”

McGuire retorted, “The governor does have the authority to call those meetings,” but Marklein and Born both ignored the assertion, and when the meeting was adjourned, the Republicans left.

What followed were dueling press releases.

“Once again, Governor Evers made a disingenuous attempt to call the Joint Committee on Finance into a special meeting following his veto preventing relief for the thousands of Wisconsinites affected by PFAS contamination,” Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay), a finance committee member and one of the authors of the PFAS bill that Evers vetoed, said in a statement sent out by his office.

The committee’s Democrats sent out a joint statement of their own:

“It’s unconscionable that Wisconsin Republicans continue to play politics with the health and safety of our communities,” the statement said. “While Wisconsinites face the dire consequences of PFAS contamination and hospital closures, Republican lawmakers choose to evade their responsibility to act. It’s time for them to prioritize the well-being of our state over partisan interests.”

Lawmakers agree on opioid plan, remain deadlocked on PFAS, hospital funds was originally published by Wisconsin Examiner.

More about the Opioid Crisis

Read more about Opioid Crisis here

More about the PFAS Problem

Read more about PFAS Problem here

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