The federal government is shipping $3.2 billion in stimulus money to Wisconsin and Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature have dueling visions on how to spend it and who should control the purse strings.
The Republican Legislature began hearings Tuesday on a series of bills, introduced late Friday, that are made up of pieces of an overall attempt to seize control of Wisconsin’s share of the federal $1.9 trillion national American Rescue Plan (ARP) package enacted in March.
Last month Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the original GOP bill, which would have required him to submit all of his spending plans for the money, saying, “We can’t afford for the Legislature to play politics with our funds under the American Rescue Plan — we’re going to get folks support as quickly as we can.”
Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said both houses plan to pass their own bills as quickly as possible even if they are certain to be met with another Evers’ veto.
“The governor is sitting on $3.2 billion,” Marklein told reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s my desire that he gets to work and start allocating this money.”
He added, “I suspect that we’ll have conversations and caucuses and that we will take action on some or all of those bills, prior to any action by the Joint Finance Committee on the budget.” Born agreed saying the bills needed to move forward “as quickly as possible” and before any JFC budget votes.
When a reporter said Evers’ office pointed to his previous veto message when asked about the current crop of bills, Born reacted saying it won’t change Republicans’ plans. “The governor gets to have his role and if he wants to veto those bills that show up on his desk that we sent him and that are important to the people of Wisconsin, that’s his prerogative,” said Born.
How that money is spent will have a huge impact on Wisconsin’s ‘21-‘23 biennial budget that is currently before the finance committee, say the co-chairs.
Around the same time the co-chairs held their news conference, Evers announced that he was allocating $46 million toward 9,300 new small business grants through his “We’re All In” program at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) from the first federal stimulus package known as the CARES Act.
According to Evers’ office, he has used $370 million federal funds to support roughly 53,000 small businesses, 15,000 farms and the tourism/hospitality industry.
WEDC simultaneously released a report outlining its goals and investment plans for post-pandemic recovery, called ‘Wisconsin Tomorrow: Building an Economy for All.’
There are 11 Republican bills scheduled to go before the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) on Wednesday. Taken together they would appropriate more than $4 billion — more than the state’s entire federal allotment. Republicans gave a preview of some of the items on March 30.
Included are bills to fund grant programs to small business, agriculture and entertainment venues. Another bill would appropriate money for broadband internet service in underserved areas of the state. Each of those items have been included in Evers own outline of his plans for the state’s ARPA funds.
Another bill would use some of the money to pay for municipal lead-service line replacement — an item that the Legislature declined to fund in the last biennium. Others would pay down public debt and highway bonds and fund payments to nursing homes.
Another bill would spend more than $1 billion to pay property owners the equivalent of 10% of their property tax bills. As structured, the higher the value of a property-owner’s taxes, the more the individual would receive.
A 12th bill would institute a holiday on sales taxes and personal property use taxes for a variety of entertainment and hospitality venues, including restaurants and taverns, for June, July and August of 2021. It’s the only bill in the group that doesn’t refer to the federal stimulus law, and it is not on the JFC agenda for Wednesday.
Democrats in the Legislature appear unlikely to support the bills to dictate how the ARP money is spent.
In a joint statement after an Assembly Committee on State Affairs public hearing on four of the bills Tuesday afternoon, the committee’s four Democrats dismissed them as attempts “to politicize the distribution of federal COVID relief dollars,” noting the bills were introduced in the Friday before a holiday weekend and “rushed to a public hearing with a committee vote to follow” on Wednesday.
The lawmakers — Reps. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb), Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha) and Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) — accused the Republican majority of “a year of failing to act to address the COVID-19 pandemic and provide Wisconsinites with much needed relief.”
The statement offered praise for Evers’ management of the CARES Act funds and expressed confidence in his handling of the ARP money. It declared the GOP legislation “part of an ongoing Republican challenge focused on politics and power, rather than on the needs of the people and the ability of the state to respond flexibly to additional issues as they emerge.”