GOP bills seeking control of federal COVID relief funds to take center stage

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    Tuesday’s Assembly floor session will focus largely on a package of bills that would take control of federal COVID-19 relief spending from Gov. Tony Evers — and will almost certainly face an Evers veto.

    The Assembly Rules Committee has put 11 bills on Tuesday’s agenda that direct spending from Wisconsin’s $3.2 billion share of money from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). They include measures that echo or overlap some of the choices that Evers has already announced in his initial allocation of the ARPA money, as well as items that haven’t been included in the governor’s plan.

    Evers vetoed legislation March 29 that would have given the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee the power to veto his spending choices for the ARPA funds.

    One of the bills before the Assembly Tuesday, AB-232, would spend more than $1 billion of the state’s ARPA allotment to pay property owners about 10% of their annual property tax bill. All property taxpayers — not just homeowners — would benefit from the legislation, and people with the most property and property taxes would receive the largest payments.

    Another bill, AB-233 calls for $200 million in small business grants to be distributed from the ARPA funds. That amount is one-third of $600 million that Evers announced March 29 he would spend from the ARPA funds on relief for small businesses and restaurants hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    A small business advocacy group Monday criticized the Republican small business bill, pointing to the other bill that would award funds only to property owners.

    “Cutting $400 million in small business grants to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations makes no sense,” Shawn Phetteplace, Main Street Alliance-Wisconsin manager said Monday. “This legislation will hurt Main Street.”

    Phetteplace and Main Street Alliance-Wisconsin member testified at an Assembly committee hearing April 6 against the bill. On Monday, he called on Republican leaders in the Legislature to amend the grant bill to match Evers’ proposal or else drop the legislation.

    An April 7 Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo states that it’s not clear whether the proposed payments in AB-232 would be allowed under the federal law, which restricts the funds “from being used to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in net tax revenues.”

    Besides the 11 bills on spending ARPA funds, a 12th bill that the Assembly will vote on Tuesday would grant entertainment and hospitality venues, including restaurants and taverns, a sales tax holiday this coming June through August.

    All 12 bills passed through committees in the Legislature on party-line votes, with Republicans favoring them while Democrats were opposed. Evers’ office has already signaled a veto of the legislation is likely.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with 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.