Evers finds end run to save $70M in monthly federal food support

By: - April 13, 2021 8:28 pm
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(U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo)

A battle over federal food aid that Wisconsin appeared to have lost took a new twist Tuesday, as Gov. Tony Evers announced a deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep $70 million per month of additional food aid coming to the state.

The aid was tied to the federal pandemic state of emergency — but also Wisconsin’s health emergency. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on March 31 that the Evers administration could not extend a statewide emergency order, it meant the state could no longer receive the additional federal aid. Evers’ agreement with the USDA allows Wisconsin to continue receiving the federal money.

The deal turns on a new emergency declaration from the state health department’s top official. But after a year of legal battles over the ability of the governor and the state health officer to order public health measures, the new declaration is crafted to avoid further skirmishes.

It simply tells the state Department of Health Services (DHS) to keep doing its job.

The USDA has accepted the declaration as sufficient to continue supplemental food aid to Wisconsin, Evers announced Tuesday afternoon.

The agreement also parries an attempt by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to use the food aid as bait to force Democrats to resurrect a GOP bill that Evers vetoed in January — a bill that the governor charged would have harmed public health.

At stake was supplemental assistance to Wisconsin’s FoodShare program, which provides food assistance to low-income households through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes referred to as ‘food stamps.’

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Wisconsin has been receiving an additional $50 million or more a month in SNAP aid for the state’s FoodShare program.

Gov. Tony Evers 11/24/20 media briefing via YouTube
Gov. Tony Evers

Starting early in 2021, however, the aid became a hostage to Republican lawmakers’ efforts to curb Evers’ emergency powers to battle the pandemic. Two weeks ago, it was cut short by the state Supreme Court ruling blocking the governor from declaring any more emergencies due to COVID-19.

The drama started on Jan. 26, when all but two members of the Senate Republican majority voted to end the governor’s Jan. 19 health emergency, including a statewide mask order. The emergency declaration and order were the latest in a succession of such orders since August.

After that vote, lawmakers learned from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that having an emergency in place was required to continue the supplemental FoodShare aid.

Assembly Republicans had planned to vote two days after the Senate did on the joint resolution, thus completing the job of killing Evers’ emergency order. But faced with the prospect of the FoodShare loss, Assembly Republican leaders put off their vote.

Their solution was to tie the aid to another bill — the state’s first COVID-19 response legislation in the new Legislative session.

AB-1 had a complicated history of its own. The original GOP measure contained elements that both Evers and the Republican leaders supported,but also provisions that Democrats opposed. After passing the Assembly on a party-line vote, Evers and Senate Republicans eked out a compromise, getting rid of items the governor opposed and winning a near-unanimous Senate vote.

Back in the Assembly, Republican leaders rewrote the compromise — again, adding provisions that Democratic lawmakers opposed and Evers had already hinted would draw a veto. Those included limits on the power of local health departments and language barring employers or government agencies from requiring COVID-19 vaccines. Again the bill passed the Assembly on a party-line vote.

With the news that Wisconsin needed an emergency order to maintain the extra FoodShare funds, Vos added a provision to AB-1 allowing Evers to declare a new emergency for the purpose of retaining the USDA supplemental aid. With that addition, the bill passed the Assembly — once more on party lines. On the same day, the Assembly also passed the Senate resolution ending the governor’s emergency.

Hours after the Assembly voted to revoke his Jan. 19 order, Evers issued a new order Feb. 4. The next day he vetoed AB-1.

Responding to the veto with a joint statement, Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu essentially predicted what ultimately happened nearly two months later: “It is sad that Gov. Evers is playing games at the expense of disadvantaged people by putting $50 million in food assistance benefits in jeopardy should the court eliminate the unlawful public health emergency,” the GOP leaders stated, referring to the monthly FoodShare supplement.

On March 31, the state Supreme Court voted 4-3 that Evers couldn’t issue multiple emergencies for the same underlying problem without the Legislature’s approval. As a consequence, DHS reported a week later, Wisconsin stood to lose the supplemental aid starting May 1 — and not just the $50 million that the supplement was originally.

In a news conference before the Assembly’s floor session on Tuesday, Vos dangled before reporters — and the Democrats in the Legislature — what he said was a solution.

“One of the first bills that we brought up, AB-1, actually had the provision that we put in there to allow the governor to be able to declare a second emergency allowing him to access those dollars,” Vos said. “I think he made a mistake in vetoing the legislation.”

Speaker Robin Vos at 11/17/20 news conference
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

By overriding the veto, Vos suggested, the Legislature could recover the FoodShare funds.

The Assembly Speaker held off from setting a firm date for an override vote. Instead, he appeared to suggest it would be up to the Democrats in the Legislature to take the next step.

“I hope my Democratic colleagues will join us in overriding the veto,” Vos said. “And I’m happy to bring that up at some point in the future. But frankly, I have not gotten any offers from the Democrats to work with us on finding a solution.”

At a media briefing an hour later, Evers hinted at a solution of his own. The governor said after talks with USDA he hoped to have “some good news” to reveal shortly.

Just before 4 p.m. Tuesday — three hours after Vos had issued his challenge to Democrats — the governor made his announcement. 

Negotiations with USDA and the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) produced “an agreement ensuring Wisconsin will continue to receive the funds in the absence of the governor being able to declare a public health emergency,” Evers’ office announced in a statement. The deal provides the state “more than $70 million in food assistance benefits [monthly] for more than 400,000 Wisconsin households.”

The answer was an “emergency declaration” tied to the pandemic — but one that doesn’t claim any new powers for the administration outside its executive authority.

The declaration is signed by DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. Its instructions are directed to the department and its staff: to keep leading the state’s vaccination efforts, provide COVID-19 testing for communities around the state, help local health departments with contact tracing, communicate with the public on how best to stop the spread of the illness, and continue “ongoing disease surveillance to inform the response.”

It has no expiration date.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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