Committee considers constitutional amendment to give Legislature more control over federal funds
“If you can remember, the Legislature didn’t convene for over 300 days in the 2020 session,” business owner Christy McKenzie said as Rep. Robert Wittke, the author of a resolution to give the Legislature control over federal emergency funds, looked on during an Assembly Ways and Means committee hearing Thursday, March 16, 2023 (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
A resolution that would amend the Wisconsin Constitution to give the Legislature more power over how federal funds are appropriated in the state is, again, being considered by lawmakers.
The Assembly Ways and Means committee heard testimony Thursday about the constitutional amendments that were proposed in reaction to Gov. Tony Evers’ distribution of federal aid during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hearing begins the second consideration of the bill, having passed once last session, which means if it passes the Legislature this session it could show up on voters’ ballots in April 2024 or November 2024.
“These supplemental federal funds were important to our state’s economic well-being, but only Gov. Evers made the determination for allocation of that $5.5 billion in federal funds without any legislative consideration,” Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), the author of the resolution, told the committee. He said the amendments would “restore balance to how Wisconsin manages supplemental federal money.”
A state law, first passed in the 1930s in anticipation of federal relief the state would receive in response to the Great Depression, gives Wisconsin’s governor the power to accept and appropriate federal funds. Due to the law, Evers was able to decide largely on his own how to spend federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Much of the money was used to fund emergency grant programs like the Child Care Counts Emergency Payment Program and the Main Street Bounceback Business Grants.
Wittke says the idea is to give voters the opportunity to weigh in on whether this is the way they want their government structured, and that the change could have come through the normal legislative process if they wanted. However, a constitutional amendment also bypasses a potential veto by Evers.
The Republican-led Legislature attempted in 2021 on several occasions to tell Evers how to spend the money by passing and introducing several bills that appropriated ARPA funds for a variety of purposes. Evers vetoed the bills, including the initial bill that would have required all ARPA spending plans to go through the Joint Finance Committee.
The constitutional amendments, if approved by voters, would make it so that the governor would need approval from the Legislature before making future appropriations of federal money.
The first measure would create language to provide that the Legislature “may not delegate its sole power to determine how moneys shall be appropriated.” The second measure would create language to “prohibit the governor from allocating any federal moneys the governor accepts on behalf of the state without the approval of the Legislature by joint resolution or as provided by legislative rule.”
Republican lawmakers who support the amendments say Evers shouldn’t have had the power to unilaterally allocate the money, but rather he should have needed to consult with the Legislature.
“We do better when we bounce ideas off of each other,” Rep. Barbara Dittrich said during the hearing. “I wouldn’t want any governor, no matter what political party, to have this unilateral activity and I just think it works better when we work together as a Legislature.”
Christy McKenzie, a representative of Main Street Alliance, a small business advocacy organization, told the committee that the speed that federal aid and Main Street Bounceback Business Grants were disbursed to her and other small businesses early in the pandemic was essential to keep their businesses afloat.
“In 2020, overnight, I lost 60% of my business,” McKenzie, who owns a food business in Madison, said. “It was the quick work of the federal relief programs and subsequent state programs that allowed me to sit here today and say that I successfully brought in $2 million in revenue into our city, kept 40 people working through the pandemic and put over $500,000 back into our local agriculture and local producers’ economy.”
McKenzie said it’s critical that emergency funds are allocated as quickly as possible and suggested the extra step of needing legislative approval would have slowed the process down in 2020.
“If you can remember, the Legislature didn’t convene for over 300 days in the 2020 session. How would that have impacted the ability to get the funds out the door and into [my] pocket… when I needed to be able to support rent and make sure that I could pay my staff?” McKenzie asked.
Rep. Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha), referencing McKenzie’s testimony, said the appropriations made by Evers weren’t done in a vacuum but in consultation with others including the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. He said the system worked well during the COVID-19 pandemic with Evers getting the money out to businesses quickly.
“There’s advantages to giving the executive branch some authority to have to deal with the emergency situations like we’ve been through and undoubtedly legislatures after us will go through,” Ohnstad said.
Republican lawmakers said giving more control to the Legislature wouldn’t obstruct the process, just increase accountability.
“[The Joint Finance Committee] has the ability to appropriate money, and so it seems to me it’s not obtuse, we’re not looking to delay the process,” Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview), the chairman of the committee, said. “It’s just simply accountability.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the time period that Wisconsin passed the 1930s state law and to clarify the wording of a quote.
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