The Legislature debates its power, purpose and prestige
Wisconsin Capitol dome | Phil Roeder Flickr CC BY 2.0
The Legislature tackled a question of such importance to Speaker Robin Vos that he used a rare “call of the house” procedural move to force every legislator back into their seats and took a roll call before he spoke on a bill he declared to be the most important thing the Legislature was going to do “in this floor period.”
Further into the debate he requested that the clerk transcribe the entire debate on that same bill into the journal, saying he would bring it out to read it back to Democrats in the future.
The bill he lavished with such attention on Tuesday is one that would give the Legislature control over how the roughly $3.2 coming into state coffers from the federal American Rescue Plan is spent. Without the change, the funding is allocated by Gov. Tony Evers and his administration, as it was with the first federal pandemic stimulus bill through the CARES Act.
The hours of volatile debate did not include a discussion on how to allocate the money, what needs the public has after more than a year in a pandemic economy or any other reason why gaining control over the money really mattered to Republicans.
The debate was about control.
Both the state Senate and Assembly voted — along party lines — to force Evers to run federal aid decisions through the Legislature. Democrats said the GOP pleas for bipartisanship were hypocritical given that the first thing Republicans did after Evers was elected in 2018 was to convene a lame duck session to take power away from the executive branch. Democrats also noted that Republicans had refused to come in and debate issues Evers convened special sessions to tackle, from police reform to education.
“What are we trying to accomplish for the people of our state?” asked Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, accusing Republicans of trying to pick fights and micromanage the governor since the day he was elected. “Don’t take it out on the people of Wisconsin by doing measures that ultimately politicize what should be a public health response to this pandemic.”
Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) countered that being involved in the decision making is the legislators’ right and their job: “We deserve that seat at the table. We deserve to help distribute those dollars.”
The debate brought out a decade plus of grievances each side had against the other, with a particular focus by Republicans on attacking Evers as a dictator, as Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) put it, who cut them out of the process. “We might as well just have kings who have armies that fight one another,” said Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha). “This is a critical point in our history and we need to figure out a way as a Legislature, as two different parties, to find that common ground.”
What came up just briefly during the debate — but could be of major importance to Wisconsin citizens, businesses and local governments struggling in the pandemic — was a threat from Vos that if the Republicans weren’t given control of the federal funds, they would go to court to win that control, even though a lawsuit might end up causing Wisconsinites a major delay in, or loss of, recovery funding.
“Frankly, I believe that the governor’s decision to take the money without any legislative involvement is unconstitutional,” said Vos. “The Wisconsin constitution provides, ‘no money shall be paid out of the Treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.’ Very straightforward,” said Vos. “If for some reason the governor chooses to veto this bill, we will have no choice but to go to court, because the constitution is crystal clear. [The governor] does not have the right to put us on the hook with the federal government unilaterally.”
The other objection to legislative control over the process was timing. Vos said that the plan allowed for spending through 2024, so there was no rush. Democrats disagreed saying recovery needed to start immediately and had to be conducted by someone who could get it done.
“The question is who do we trust to make these decisions,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit). “Do we trust the Legislature that barely met during a global pandemic, that turned away and continues to turn away the federal dollars to expand BadgerCare and actually save taxpayers money? The Legislature that is now turning away federal unemployment insurance money?
“Do we trust a speaker of the Assembly that just threatened to sue and risk this money, or do we trust Gov. Evers? Look, if you have good ideas, send them to the governor. Bring them here and let’s talk about them. All ideas should be on the table. But who do we trust to get this money to the people who need it now? I don’t want to wait until 2024 to start spending this money … business and people can’t wait, they need the help now.”
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said the Republican agenda in Wisconsin today is a focus on Evers, dubbing it the “Tony Evers Fever.” “Since November of 2018 Republicans in this building have been obsessed with Tony Evers. … You’ve sued him before and now are apparently going to sue him again. … What has consumed the majority of time in debate on this floor in this Assembly? I will tell you it is all about Tony Evers.”
Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) wrapped her comments on the full day of partisan rancor into one thought: “If there is one thing that is pretty clear from the speeches today, it’s that the speaker just isn’t into Gov. Evers. … If you want to run for governor, have at it.”
Sending a message
Other items on the Assembly agenda tied to the topic of COVID included passage of a bill to ensure that churches and other houses of worship could never be closed by public health order. There were also two anti-vaccine mandate bills, one stating that the government cannot require the vaccine of anyone and another stating that employers cannot require the vaccine as a condition of employment.
The common theme in the COVID bills, said Hintz ahead of the session, is “at a time when we are trying to encourage — incentivize, get buy in on — the number of people getting vaccinated as a way to minimize the spread, and really put it into the COVID virus, we have bills today that actually send the opposite message.”
“The intent behind them seems to be pandering towards the same kind of anti-science anti-public health position that’s out there,” he added, “at the worst time possible.”
The Senate had already passed the bills, which Evers is likely to veto.
Vos, who plans to get the vaccine, said telling people what to do “by finger wagging” would backfire. “The argument my Democratic colleagues are making is that we just have to tell people what to do because they won’t be smart enough to do it themselves.”
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Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield), a nurse and epidemiologist, said asking questions is not anti vaccine, “But this bill prohibiting high-risk employers from requiring a vaccine to protect their staff and the people who they care for is anti vaccine.”
Bills against vaccine requirements, said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) were not about making policy, because Evers was unlikely to sign them into law.
“I cannot figure any legitimate purpose for this bill, so it must be a messaging bill,” said Subeck. “And it’s the wrong message.”
Who’s on the job?
Many state employees, whose jobs allow them to, have been working out of their homes since the pandemic began to avoid contracting and spreading COVID. Another bill on the Assembly’s agenda ordered Evers to come up with a plan to get them back into state offices.
Several Republicans belittled state employees, saying they were not serving the public when they were not in their offices. Vos said taxpayers have the right to know what the people whose salaries they are paying are doing “if and when, if ever,” they work. They are “sitting at home, waiting for a Zoom call and, perhaps ‘working,’” he said emphasizing the last word with air quotes.
Addressing his colleagues, Steineke said, “The people who sent you to Madison deserve to know what they are paying for. … Do they not have a right to know if these employees are coming back to work? Do they not have the right to know going into the budget if $2 billion in capital projects are really necessary if these buildings are going to sit vacant because these people are working at home?”
All the talk about taxpayers paying salaries for employees who might not be working was too much for Democrats who jumped on the fact that during the time legislators were accusing state workers of not working, they did not hold a single legislative session for nine months.
During that time, taxpayers paid $555,000 for lodging, transportation and other daily expenses for the lawmakers, who also made a total $6.9 million in salaries in 2020 according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article that came out Tuesday.
The cost for legislators who refused to meet was also raised by Democrats in the Senate where it came up during the debate on the Legislature trying to control the pandemic stimulus. Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) pointed out the difference between federal aid and state funding, which the Legislature does control.
Erpenbach opined that legislators who did not lose pay during the pandemic, despite their lack of work, might not be best at deciding how to spend federal funds. He told them to go home and explain to their constituents why, despite the refusal to vote on bills, they collected paychecks and per diems. “It just makes you look like power-grabbing idiots,” he said.
Rep. Chris Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) stood up for the state workers, saying “they are working very hard from home. … Unfortunately they have not been able to rely on this body to support them.”
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