Republicans in the Assembly voted 52- 42 on Thursday to overturn Gov. Tony Evers’ mask order after several hours of speeches.
However, within an hour after the Legislature adjourned, Evers — knowing this was coming — signed a new executive order and an emergency order “establishing a statewide public health emergency and requiring face coverings in public places to protect the health and safety of Wisconsinites.”
The governor’s emergency order references the “new, more contagious strains of the virus that causes COVID19” that are emerging. It also states that “the virus continues to present a real and changing threat to Wisconsin’s economy, healthcare system, and most importantly, its people.”
His orders took effect immediately — but not before the Assembly Republicans and Democrats had spent hours clearly laying out their opinions and priorities.
The Republican plan was to overturn the previous executive public health order on Friday, when the Senate plans to convene in an extraordinary session to concur and then have Republican leaders sign the repeal order into law. The measure is a resolution, and state law on this topic dictates it takes effect without the governor’s signature.
Signing the resolution now would be useless because of the governor’s new orders. It remains to be seen whether the Senate and Assembly will respond with any attempt to circumvent the new orders when they convene the extraordinary session tomorrow.
The Republican members focused on the theme of the political process and procedure and what the group labeled “the rule of law,” under which they said Evers is not allowed to declare a public health emergency for the same situation more than once.
“What’s ruling the day here is the rule of law,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, who implored his colleagues to think about how vital legislative authority is. “I don’t know when legislators became comfortable with delegating their authority to the executive branch.”
Democrats also spoke with passion, begging the other legislators to see how masks save lives and warning that it is dangerous to do anything to reduce mask use right now as Wisconsin approaches 6,000 deaths from COVID-19.
“The vote taken today by Assembly Republicans is either about repealing the mask requirements – which is cruel and callous in and of itself – or Republicans were willing to take an action so uncaring and unkind that they put their contempt for the governor and their desire for absolute power ahead of the health and economic stability of our communities and our state,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison).
“This is shameful,” Subeck added. “Either it’s about masks or it’s about politics, and either way you’re wrong.” She then read the names of nearly 60 organizations representing health care, schools, businesses and more that have registered to lobby against lifting the mask order. No groups registered in favor of the resolution.
In the end, seven Republicans joined all Democrats in voting against ending the mask order. They were: Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), Jeffrey Mursau (R-Crivitz), Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua), David Steffen (R-Green Bay), Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) and Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek).
The Assembly voted along straight party lines, 59-35, to attach an amendment designed to preserve funding for federal FoodShare aid by giving the governor the power to issue an emergency order solely for the purpose of receiving federal funds. The amendment is similar to the one authored by Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) that passed the Senate, but is written more narrowly because Vos feared that Nass’ version of the amendment gave extra powers to the governor. Saying that the Senate Republicans made a mistake, Vos released a Legislative Council memo on the topic Wednesday.
That may be a moot point after Evers’ newest executive order.
The bill that is currently going back and forth between the Senate and Assembly is not either of the two bipartisan compromise bills, the first authored by Evers or the second by Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.
It includes a number of other amendments Democrats oppose as well, including a ban on employers or government entities requiring COVID-19 vaccines, giving control over pandemic funding to the Legislature via the Joint Finance Committee and forbidding local health officers from placing gathering restrictions on any religious houses of worship.
Vos joined several Republican colleagues in telling the media that rescinding the mask order was not about masks. Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) said he expected the media to be “sneaking” into legislator’s offices trying to catch them without masks.
Reporters, however, did not follow orders from Vos and other Republicans, who instructed the media to report that the vote was not about masks.
Evers’ office responded to that as well.
“Listen when Republicans tell you this is about the governor’s authority,” said Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback. “What they’re telling you is what’s been true all along during this pandemic: There’s nothing they won’t do — even putting Wisconsinites’ health, safety, and lives at risk — again — just to stick it to Gov. Evers.”
A case on the powers of the governor is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In his release announcing the new order, Evers noted that, “Despite writing in a brief to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in April 2020 that stated Republicans were ‘drafting even now’ legislation to respond to the pandemic, Republicans have not sent a bill to the governor’s desk in more than 290 days.”
LeMahieu issued a statement in response to Evers’ new order accusing him of showing “flagrant disregard for the rule of law.” He asked that the Wisconsin Supreme Court step in to “end this constitutional crisis,” adding, “The People of Wisconsin can no longer be subjected to confusing, unilateral decrees without basis in statute … The Legislature has done our part to stop this lawlessness. Only a court can stop a Governor bent on ignoring the law.”
Not to be outdone, Nass said he is drafting a new resolution to end the new emergency order requiring masks, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he wants Republican leaders to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court for an emergency ruling.
And attorney Rick Esenberg, president of Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) — the Republican law firm that sued Evers in August 2020 arguing that consecutive emergency orders were a violation of state law, put out a statement declaring that “Gov. Evers actions have provoked a constitutional crisis in Wisconsin. To seize these unilateral emergency powers in the face of a legislative vote to cancel an emergency is a threat to our system of government and the rule of law. It is now incumbent on the courts to rein in this abuse of power.”
Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who has been advocated repeatedly for mask use praised Evers on Twitter:
“Thank you Gov. Evers for doing what the Wisconsin state legislature refuses to do: believe & trust science. Wearing a mask is one of the best defenses we have against this virus. Wisconsinites deserve leaders that don’t play politics with their health.”