Pandemic relief battle resumes with GOP bill that couples school mental health funding with new reporting requirement

By: - September 28, 2021 1:06 am
Very tight close up on the eye on a one dollar US bill

Photo by peasap | Flickr CC BY 2.0

As Republican lawmakers again try to wrest control over how Wisconsin’s  Democratic governor spends the state’s share of federal pandemic relief funds, the Assembly will vote Tuesday on a bill demanding reports on how those funds are spent.

The same bill, AB-564, also directs Gov. Tony Evers to give $100 million in federal funds to the state Department of Public Instruction for school mental health programs.

The bill passed the Assembly Mental Health Committee Sept. 22 on a party-line vote. Evers has vetoed several pieces of similar legislation that would cede decisions about spending the pandemic relief money. 

The new legislation would require that the administration submit to the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee copies of every report, including status updates, that the executive branch submits to the federal government on how it spends federal coronavirus relief funds. The bill also would require the administration to post copies of those reports to the internet for easy access by the public.

The funds in question have come to Wisconsin primarily through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in 2021.

Along with new reporting requirements, the legislation directs $100 million from the state’s ARPA allotment to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for grants to public, charter and private schools for mental health programs. It also requires reports to the finance committee on DPI’s and schools’ pandemic relief spending.

“The public should know how billions in their dollars are being spent,” state Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi), author of the bill, stated at an Assembly Mental Health Committee public hearing Sept. 21.

In a joint statement after the hearing, the committee’s four Democrats decried the legislation, noting that the ARPA funds for school mental health would be a one-time infusion when a continuing source was needed. They criticized the Legislature’s Republican majority for not passing Evers’ original education budget and not drawing on $550 million that remains unappropriated in the state’s General Purpose Revenue funds as a result of the governor’s partial budget veto. The day after the hearing, the committee voted 9-4 to advance the bill.

Evers “has repeatedly proposed increased investments in mental health support for students, many of which were cut by Republicans in the Legislature,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, said Monday. She called on the GOP lawmakers to “use readily available state resources to make the meaningful investments our kids and our schools deserve.”

Republicans have made several other attempts to dictate how the state’s $2.5 billion in federal ARPA funds would be spent after Evers  vetoed a GOP bill to funnel those funds through the Joint Finance Committee.

The governor’s office and Democratic lawmakers have pointed to state laws that give the governor and the executive branch unilateral control over most federal funds the state receives. They have also argued that several Republican proposals could face federal challenges for not fitting the requirements laid down in ARPA and in the regulations implementing the pandemic relief law.

Evers vetoed a bill that would have used ARPA money to fund a loan for a proposed timber-industry cooperative acquisition of a shuttered Wisconsin Rapids paper mill. Republican lawmakers had rejected a Democratic amendment to the legislation to use state funds instead of ARPA.

Five other bills passed the state Assembly June 22 on party-line or near-party-line votes requiring ARPA funds for various projects. None have been scheduled in the Senate as of Monday.

Additional bills directing ARPA spending still await public hearings. AB-417 would spend $4.6 million for a Marathon County-based regional forensic science center. AB-429 / SB-480 would award $9.75 million to the city of Kenosha for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics innovation center. AB-468 would grant $100,000 for a pedestrian bridge in the community of Lodi.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor 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.