What is it with Wisconsin Republicans? As our state struggles with the unprecedented crises affecting both our economy and public health, our GOP legislative leaders are busy turning down billions of dollars in aid from the federal government and posturing by passing bills they know will be vetoed in a fruitless attempt to seize control over federal COVID relief from Gov. Tony Evers.
Set aside for a moment the tiresome power-grab politics the Republicans have doggedly pursued since the day Evers and other Democrats won every statewide office in 2018. Let’s take a look at some of the most recent financial losses our do-nothing Legislature has managed to inflict on our state:
Because the Legislature refused to meet on pandemic relief in a timely manner, Wisconsin lost out on $25 million in federal funding to help pay for unemployment benefits. As Erik Gunn has reported, under the CARES Act, states could be reimbursed for unemployment benefits as long as they did not require applicants to wait one week before receiving the funds. Instead of meeting on a proposal Evers made on March 21, which included suspending Wisconsin’s one-week unemployment waiting period, GOP legislative leaders didn’t schedule floor sessions until the week of April 13 — missing the CARES Act deadline and forfeiting the $25 million in federal funds.
Legislative leaders have said they will reject more than $1 billion in federal Medicaid expansion money. If the state expands BadgerCare, as Evers has proposed in his 2021-23 budget, Wisconsin could save $1.6 billion over the next biennium, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Evers wants to cover the more than 90,000 uninsured Wisconsinites who would be eligible for Medicaid under the expansion, which lifts the income cap for Medicaid from $12,880 to $17,774. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said accepting federal funds for the Medicaid expansion is part of a “liberal wish list” and a “non-starter.” Republicans in the Legislature are determined to hang onto Wisconsin’s pariah status as one of only 14 states that refuse to accept Medicaid expansion funds in the American Rescue Plan. And that’s on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money the state has been turning down each year for the last decade by rejecting the higher federal reimbursement other states get through the Obama-era Medicaid expansion. The state has lost an estimated $320 million over the last two years alone and stands to lose another $635 million in the coming two-year budget cycle.
Wisconsin almost lost $70 million per month in federal FoodShare money after the state Supreme Court struck down Evers’ public health emergency order on March 31. On Tuesday, Evers reached an agreement with the USDA to salvage the money that was set to disappear because of a lawsuit pursued by legislative Republicans, who sought to limit the governor’s power to declare public health emergencies. The FoodShare money Wisconsin would have lost because the health emergency was overturned would have come directly out of household food budgets Feeding Wisconsin points out. Fortunately, Evers and the Biden administration worked out a deal to reverse that.
This week, the Legislature is at it again. They want to spend $1 billion on property tax rebates that are likely not allowed under federal rules — meaning state taxpayers would have to foot the bill for this giveaway. As Melanie Coinklin reports, among their dead-on-arrival bills aiming to seize control and redirect $3 billion in federal COVID relief funds away from Evers’ priorities, GOP legislators include $1 billion in tax rebate payments to property owners that, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state will have to reimburse. That means Wisconsin taxpayers would be on the hook to cover the cost, plus we would lose the federal money to spend on urgent needs.
It has become mind-numbingly familiar to hear Republican politicians who have spent their whole careers on the public payroll bashing government and posing as business-minded guardians of the public purse — even when they are charging taxpayers half a million dollars in expenses for meals and lodging during the pandemic, while barely showing up for work.
But now the anti-government posturing has gone too far.
COVID-19 has laid bare the narcissism and small-mindedness of our Republican-led legislature, just when we badly needed effective leadership.
They are wasting our time. They are throwing away our money. They are blocking common-sense public health measures that save lives while obsessing over their own careers.
At the same time that Vos & Co. have been pursuing their petty vendettas against Democratic elected leaders (including Vos’ threat not to spend “another nickel” on Wisconsin public schools after voters elected a Democratic state school superintendent), the governor and the president of the United States are laying out bold, progressive visions for recovering and thriving after the pandemic.
This could be a breaking point.
For decades the Republican Party has peddled trickle-down economics and a kind of phony bootstraps individualism. Their governing philosophy has been that if you need help, you don’t deserve it; if you’re rich, on the other hand, you should get a break.
In the midst of a public health crisis the problems with this approach are glaringly clear.
We need leadership that can rise to the moment. Tax breaks (the Republicans’ favorite public policy idea) are not enough. We need a government that can protect public health. We need universal access to affordable health care. We need expanded unemployment benefits and a bold infrastructure program that creates new jobs. We need to protect the most vulnerable. And we need an infusion of money to make our schools safe again for students and staff and to support high quality public education across the board. All those things are on offer.
Now is not the time to squander our opportunity to rebuild. The health of our society depends on it. By indulging in petty, self-serving politics, Republicans are being both fiscally and morally irresponsible. We can’t afford it. We need all the help we can get.