By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Republican-controlled Assembly on Tuesday passed a package of bills directing how the state should spend the $3.2 billion in federal COVID relief funding — bills that Wisconsin’s go-it-alone Democratic governor will probably veto.
The 11 bills call for funding several key initiatives, ranging from property tax rebates to once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure projects. More so, the GOP majority asks Gov. Tony Evers to spend the federal windfall before demanding state taxpayers pick up the tab for his mammoth tax-and-spend budget proposal.
Republican lawmakers also want the governor to do something he’s refused to do thus far: come up with a plan with details on how he intends to spend the American Rescue Plan Act funding.
‘Making sure the voices are heard’
Evers has near-unilateral control over the money. Some states share authority between the executive and legislative branches. Evers last month vetoed a bill that would have given the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee oversight.
State Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), co-chair of the Finance Committee, said the people of Wisconsin, through their lawmakers, should have some say in where the money is allocated.
“That’s our role as elected representatives, making sure the voices are heard from everywhere,” Born said.
Fiscal conservatives want to spend $250 million in ARPA funds to pay off state debt, and deliver more than $1 billion in property tax relief in the form of rebates. Democrats complain renters would see none of the relief. Of course, Democrats and some mainstream media reporters forget to mention the $322 million in federal rental assistance Evers has doled out — including to illegal immigrants.
The Republican bills also target one-time investments, including $500 million in state-wide broadband expansion, $34 million in upgrades to Wisconsin’s emergency communications system, and $300 million in grants for highway and bridge projects. Businesses would also be protected from tax hikes on Wisconsin’s Unemployment Insurance system, ravaged by the Evers-led unemployment crisis.
Republican lawmakers say it’s wrong to ask state taxpayers to pick up the tab on the transformative projects and initiatives when there are billions of dollars in discretionary federal funds on the table.
’That’s not what it’s for’
The governor’s state budget proposal calls for $1 billion in tax increases to help pay for his massive $91 billion biennial spending plan. He’s made no indication that he’s taking those tax hikes off the table.
Evers is seeking as much as $200 million in state funding for broadband. He wants that money, too.
“We need our state budget to also have money around that. It should not be replacing state money,” Evers recently told Wisconsin Public Radio. He added that he doesn’t want people — taxpayers — to assume the federal money “is going to replace the money that we normally provide” because “that’s not what it’s for.”
A Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis found a portion of the spending bills don’t appear to comply with the federal ARPA funding guidelines, including the debt reduction plan and grant money for transportation projects. Evers, meanwhile, would use the federal money to feed his liberal agenda. He would devote $50 million, for instance, “to promote equity and inclusion and eliminate disparities that have persisted during the pandemic.”
Asked why he wouldn’t give up his special power to control the federal funds, Evers said he doesn’t have time to “mess with” delays from Republicans.
But the Democrat certainly took his sweet time distributing the first $2 billion in federal relief passed a year ago. As of the most recent tracking, the Evers administration had failed to spend nearly $200 million of the first round. At one point, there was concern Wisconsin would lose a portion of the dollars because of allocation and spending delays.
The bills passed Tuesday on a party-line vote wouldn’t delay the governor from distributing the funds.
No concrete plan
While Republicans have laid out a spending plan for the federal money, Evers has yet to do the same. He did announce that he will target $2.5 billion for “economic relief,” including $50 million for the tourism industry and another $600 million for other businesses hit hard by the pandemic and government lockdowns and restrictions. But the governor has issued few details.
Is it an exercise in futility for the Republican-led Legislature that Evers has repeatedly — and illegally — tried to cut out of the state’s COVID response? Born says no.
“It has been very difficult to work with this governor, no doubt about it. But at the end of the day we have a job to do as far as representing our constituents and doing what’s in the best interest of the state,” the lawmaker said.
And one of the biggest jobs before this Legislature, Born said, is to stop Evers’ reckless, tax-hiking, divisive policies.