Gov. Tony Evers announced grants for Wisconsin transit systems from the state’s pandemic relief funds Aug. 31, 2021. A proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution would require the Legislature to direct how the state spends federal aid. (Madison Metro | Evers’ Facebook)
Voting along party lines, the state Senate took the first step Tuesday to advance a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would give the Legislature the power to control how federal aid to the state is spent — power that currently resides with the governor’s office under Wisconsin law.
The amendment, introduced as a Senate resolution (SJR-84) earlier this month, follows nearly a year of recurring attempts by the Republican majority in the Legislature to direct how Gov. Tony Evers spends the state’s $2.5 billion in pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Evers has vetoed every bill that has reached his desk directing the use of those funds.
Speaking against the measure, Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) pointed to Evers’ choices in spending the state’s federal pandemic relief aid to bolster public transit systems, supplement food and nutrition programs, support entertainment venues that shut down because of the pandemic and provide additional resources for public health and a wide range of other forms of assistance to small businesses and to communities.
By contrast, after passing one bill in April 2020 to secure the first federal COVID-19 aid to the state, the GOP majority declined to schedule any more floor sessions to debate or enact legislation “in the face of the biggest public health crisis in a lifetime,” Agard said. “Time after time, the Legislature has proven to be unresponsive to the needs of everyday Wisconsinites. After all has been said and done, after all the obstructionism, now, the Legislature wants a say in controlling these dollars.”
Leaving the discretion to distribute the money in the administration’s hands “allows for quick responses and quick distribution of these funds for people who so desperately need them,” Agard said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of why the Legislature should not be in control of these dollars.”
The resolution’s author, Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), defended it as a means of restoring the Legislature’s role in guiding how the state spends money and denied that it was targeting Evers.
“If you read this resolution, it is not a slap down to our current governor,” said Sen. Dale Kooyenga, the resolution’s author. Rather, he characterized it as “a slap at the Legislature” for, in his view, having ceded its authority to how federal funds are spent.
“This Legislature should do their job,” Kooyenga said. “And they should use their skills as citizen legislators … as representatives closest to the people, to give their input on where this money should be used.”
Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) said he believed Kooyenga’s motives were sincere and not motivated by partisanship. But he warned the amendment would prove cumbersome in an emergency. “Nobody will be able to get it out the door faster than the governor, whoever the governor may be at that time,” Erpenbach said.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) recalled that some of the Wisconsin Republican lawmakers “sent a letter to Congress asking them not to send us federal relief funds.” And while businesses in the state were closing due to the pandemic, she added, “our legislative body didn’t see that as an emergency that would deem any necessary help or funding from our rainy day fund.”
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) compared the proposal to the Legislature’s lame-duck session at the end of Scott Walker’s second term as governor, in which the body met to reduce the governor’s powers. He also criticized the Republican leaders in the Joint Finance Committee, who in directing how education relief money was spent opted to “punish those schools that went virtual” and delayed Wisconsin’s access to that aid as a result.
After passing the Senate 21-12, the resolution now goes to the Assembly for its concurrence. Before the proposed amendment can take effect, it will have to pass both houses of the next Legislature, then go to voters for approval in a statewide referendum.
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