Today, Wisconsin’s state assembly met to vote on a slew of bills. The first two bills, one which set aside money to help soldiers with PTSD and another to require that the holocaust be taught in middle school and high school, passed with unanimous support. Then the assembly spent hours discussing a series of bills that would have determined how federal aid was spent by Wisconsin’s state government.
Wisconsin received $5.7 billion in federal COVID-19 relief aid, as part of the American Rescue Plan. $2.5 billion of that has been set aside for specific purposes by the federal government, leaving $3.2 billion for the governor to distribute as he sees fit. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has argued that this is necessary to ensure that the money is distributed quickly. He said in a statement at the end of March that he would spend money to help the tourism industry, support small businesses, invest in infrastructure and broadband access, and continue statewide pandemic response efforts. However, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says that Republicans want to be a part of the process.
“You know, this should be one of the bills that’s easy for everyone to vote for,” said Vos. “The decision was made in congress to borrow from our children and our grandchildren, and to really have almost no guardrails on the money that’s been given to states. That was a decision that we didn’t have any say in. If I had been in congress, I would have voted no, because I don’t think borrowing from our grandkids to spend on programs that don’t necessarily grow the economy is a wise investment for our dollars. But that decision wasn’t up to the legislature. That decision was made by the congress, signed by the president, it now comes to Wisconsin.”
The bill Vos spoke in favor of would give property tax owners more than a billion dollars of federal relief aid through a tax rebate.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the bill would not support renters, but would support landlords. The Journal Sentinel also reports that Robin Vos owns $4.8 million in rental properties in Whitewater.
The bill, which was introduced entirely by Republicans, is just one of many seeking to control how the governor is able to spend those federal dollars. Representative Cabral-Guevara, a Republican from Appleton, spoke in favor of the bill in a news conference before the session. She said that it would help her, and people like her.
“This is something that I’ve talked with constituents about, this is something that impacts families such as myself, being a single mom, four kids,” said Cabral-Guevara. “I have a property tax bill that went up $1,200 dollars in the past two years, so this is very impactful not only to me, but to the constituents in my area.”
It’s unclear if federal COVID-19 relief can be used this way. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau indicates that federal funds cannot be used on tax cuts, while the US Treasury Department has yet to clarify whether funds used for economic stimulus is allowable.
Other bills would have declared a sales tax holiday for the summer-which means that sales tax on certain items would be waived or reduced-as well as spent money on tourism, farming, rural broadband, long-term care facilities and infrastructure, and paid down the state debt.
Cabral-Guevara’s plan was sent to the senate on a party-line vote, as were the other bills of its kind. The Democrats who voted against the bills, like Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay, argued that it was necessary to give the governor discretion on spending the money to make sure it was allocated quickly and efficiently.
“Governor Evers already announced an initial framework for Wisconsin American Rescue Plan funds which focuses on supporting the state’s continued recovery,” said Andraca. “We need flexibility and efficiency on spending Wisconsin’s federal COVID-19 funds. These bills today get in the way of a faster recovery. The funds were designed to be delivered to Wisconsinites by Governor Evers quickly and effectively.”
The bills determining what the governor could spend the federal dollars on were sent to the state senate, where they will be voted on again. If they are approved, they will be sent to the governor’s desk, where they will most likely be vetoed.