Putting aside a legislative impasse over reconfiguring the state’s defunct Safer at Home order, Gov. Tony Evers this week has been rolling out a series of initiatives to aid sectors of the state economy damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office announced $50 million in direct payments to Wisconsin farmers and another $15 million for food banks and food pantries, both funded by the state’s allocation under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in March.
Earlier in the day, Evers rolled out a $25 million rent assistance program, also funded with CARES Act money.
The programs announced Wednesday were Wisconsin’s third and fourth in three days directing new spending that the CARES Act made possible. On Monday, the state announced a $75 million grant program for small business along with a $51 million program to support childcare providers. On Tuesday, Evers unveiled $1.17 billion in funding for testing, contact tracing and related public health initiatives to curb COVID-19.
Given that Wisconsin’s allocation from the federal pool totals nearly $2 billion, more is likely to come.
In a newsletter his office sent out on Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) highlighted the small business and public health programs.
“I appreciate that these federal dollars are directed primarily at the local levels of government and hospitals as they’re on the front lines of this pandemic,” Vos stated. “I look forward to more transparency concerning these expenditures to ensure the money is spent where it’s needed the most.”
Farmers seeking aid through the new Wisconsin Farm Support Program will apply through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, which is collaborating with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in administering the program. The governor’s office said support payments could start in June.
The $15 million Food Security Initiative goes to food banks, food pantries and related nonprofits to be spent in two ways: to purchase food products from Wisconsin farms for distribution to people in need, and to help those agencies adapt their operations in response to the pandemic, such as reorganizing operations to meet social distancing guidelines.
The $25 million Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program will provide aid to adult residents with incomes at or below 80% of the median in their county in the month they apply or before. Renters will apply through agencies belonging to the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, which will provide up to $3,000 in rental payments, security deposits, or both, paid directly to the landlord.
Moving on from rejection
The many initiatives promise needed aid to sectors of the economy struggling after widespread business closures and slowdowns to preserve the health and lives of Wisconsin residents during the pandemic. But they also come after Evers was twice rebuffed in a week’s time.
First came the 4-3 Supreme Court ruling on May 13 that canceled the extension of the state’s Safer at Home order. Then Republican legislative leaders went back on their original proffer for a “bipartisan” version of the order to be negotiated under the rubric of an administrative rule, instead declaring that it was enough for local health departments to be in charge of their own counties or municipalities.
The governor swiftly decided to move on. When it comes to discussing a rule, “it’s not worth our time,” Evers told reporters Monday. The string of CARES Act announcements has followed.
“I think he was trying to follow up relatively quickly with action that shows that he’s on top of things,” says Joe Heim, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse — especially, he adds, because “it was pretty clear that the Republicans didn’t have a backup plan.”
Evers’ rapid pivot, and particularly his decision not to further pursue the administrative rule that the Supreme Court ruling appeared to assume was the next step, has drawn mixed opinions among political observers.
“I do wish he’d gone back to them,” says Heim. “Most of this is nonpartisan — it’s the health of people in the state … I would think they ought to be able to come up with a compromise plan that would be easier for both sides.”
At the same time, though, he acknowledges that the time required for the administrative rule procedures would have slowed the process, with no clear evidence that it would make a difference.
“The Republicans were not ready to make any kind of a grand bargain with the governor,” says Heim. “He wanted to move ahead.”
A long-time Southeastern Wisconsin political insider, speaking privately in order to be more candid, admits preferring to see Evers take a more dramatic, confrontational approach. But, the operative adds, “he’s not really that type of guy.”
Mordecai Lee, political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, sees it differently.
“I think the governor’s proving he’s a better politician than the Republican leaders thought,” says Lee, who sees little point in prolonging the administrative rule stalemate. “In the end, there would have been the same result.”
Instead, “he turns around and he suddenly releases a gusher of money,” says Lee, a former Democratic state Senator. “He knew what he was doing. He’s dominating the news. The politician who gives out money is the popular politician.”