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Legislature looks to take back power after Evers’ spending orgy

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A resolution proposed by Republican lawmakers would check executive control over federal funds, returning that particular power of the purse to the Legislature for the first time since the Great Depression.

Senate Joint Resolution 84, co-authored by Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), wouldn’t curb Democrat Gov. Tony Evers’ near-unilateral control over the billions of dollars Wisconsin has received in federal COVID-19 aid — which the Democrat has effectively used as a re-election campaign slush fund. Much of that money has been spent. But the measure was definitely inspired by Evers’ Gollum-like lust for the pandemic cash.

“Never before have we seen this much federal money pour into our state,” Wittke said. “(T)o have one person alone make the decision for where the money is spent just isn’t good governance no matter the political affiliation.”

The resolution would amend the state constitution to restore to the Legislature its authority to decide how federal funds are spent. As the lawmakers note, for much of Wisconsin’s early history, state lawmakers had the final say over the spending of all funds in the state treasury, no matter their source.

That changed during the Great Depression era, when the Legislature enacted a series of laws giving the lion’s share of authority over the rapidly expanding flow of federal funding to the executive branch.

The resolution requires all initial appropriations of federal funds to be approved by a joint committee of the Legislature. Legislative oversight would give the public “significantly more opportunity to have their voices heard and encourage a more accountable and efficient distribution of those funds,” the resolution’s authors say.

“Long ago, the legislature abandoned its responsibility to help decide where federal funding is spent. It’s time to restore the accountability that the legislative process brings,” Kooyenga said.

Sponsors say the resolution isn’t about what party controls the executive branch, it’s about the rightful authority of the First Branch — the legislative branch — under the core constitutional principles of separation of powers.

Evers has been more than glad to gobble up unprecedented power during the pandemic, and he hasn’t often concerned himself with the constitution and state law in doing it. Because of the nature of the funds in a time of emergency, Evers, like many governors, was given “wide discretion” in how to spend the federal taxpayer-funded largesse.

And he hasn’t been shy about using said discretion.

Evers’ critics have accused him of failing to adequately and timely account for the myriad federally funded COVID relief grants and other cash he has handed out. They question many of his funding choices, and assert that he is using the funds at his disposal as unregulated campaign cash to reward the constituencies he desperately needs to vote for him if he hopes to win re-election in November.

At multiple turns, the Republican-controlled Legislature has asked to be involved in the funding decisions. The Legislature is, after all, the branch that’s supposed to control the power of the purse. Evers has ignored and rebuked the requests. In April, Evers vetoed a package of Republican-authored measures that laid out how $3.2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds would be spent.

At the time, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said Evers’ veto message sent a clear message to Wisconsin taxpayers that “they will have little to no say in how their federal dollars are spent.”

“He has, once again, rejected the opportunity to work with legislators on even a basic spending plan. This is not good government,” LeMahieu said,

Authors of the resolution say the measure would bring back good government to Wisconsin. But it will take time.

The resolution will have to pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature before it can be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

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