MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers’ administration is buying 10,000 ventilators and 1 million protective masks after waiting a week for action from Republican lawmakers who said Saturday the governor already had the power to make the purchase.
The dispute comes after the Democratic governor gave legislative leaders a sweeping bill a week ago that called for spending more than $700 million to help care for thousands of sick and jobless people in Wisconsin that also imposes a number of measures Republicans oppose like suspending the photo ID requirement for voters.
His administration on Friday warned them that delaying legislation further could have “catastrophic consequences” for Wisconsin as coronavirus spreads — including not having enough money to pay for the life-saving machines and gear.
“We cannot possibly overstate the severity of this situation, the importance of flexibility to respond appropriately and expeditiously to COVID-19, and that any delay in action due to an inability to be nimble could have catastrophic consequences for the people of our state,” Deputy Department of Administration Secretary Chris Patton wrote in a Friday email to lawmakers urging them to act quickly.
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But top Republican lawmakers said Saturday
Evers was the one holding back the state’s response by not using authority he already has to make such purchases citing the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s conclusion, and that they won’t act on the bill as is.
“Again, we implore you. Please do not wait any longer to buy ventilators and masks. Do it now,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester wrote in a letter to Evers.
Vos said in an interview he wouldn’t be pushing the governor to make big spending decisions without lawmakers’ input if it wasn’t legal.
“Here’s what’s really ironic — I believe that every dollar that’s spent should have legislative oversight … no one branch should unilaterally be able to spend the money,” Vos said. “If I didn’t think that was the law (to make the purchases without legislative approval), I certainly would not be saying (Evers) has the ability to spend it.”
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau agreed Saturday with the lawmakers’ position.
Maggie Gau, Evers’ chief of staff, responded Saturday evening saying the administration has been making some smaller purchases and would ultimately move forward with the large procurement of ventilators and masks.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the administration had determined legislative approval would be needed because of the size of the purchase, and had been hoping to get some response — or alternate proposals — from the GOP.
But ultimately, the administration decided to act on its own after the fiscal bureau reached a different conclusion.
“If they’re not going to do it, we’re not going to not get these things,” Baldauff said of Republicans declining to take up the legislation. “We’re not going to have our hospitals not have what they need to respond.”
Evers also is asking lawmakers to pass a resolution to extend the state’s public health emergency, which lasts 60 days, to extend “indefinitely,” until the emergency is over. Fitzgerald said lawmakers will consider extending the 60 days at that time.
The governor’s proposed legislation, and communication between the Evers administration and Republican leaders, were released to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the state’s public records law on Saturday morning.
Within hours, both sides began blaming each other for how the state was handling its response to the coronavirus crisis.
The dispute comes at a time when the number of people in Wisconsin contracting the virus that can cause serious respiratory illness has topped 1,000 and caused 17 to die as of Saturday evening.
Health care workers say they don’t have enough equipment to stay healthy and to care for the expected surge of patients needing life-saving machines.
Scores of policy changes
Under a $2 trillion federal plan signed by President Trump on Friday, Wisconsin is getting more than $2 billion from the federal government it can use to fight the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 25,000 and sickened at least 575,000 worldwide.
The massive piece of proposed state legislation, which Evers gave lawmakers on March 21, would provide $500 million to state agencies to buy ventilators, masks and other equipment, and to hire more staff to process an unprecedented number of unemployment claims and trace the contacts made by infected patients, the administration said.
Evers’ plan would provide additional cash for people who lose their jobs, raise pay for workers at child care centers, and suspends the state’s system to rate schools amid mass closures, among other measures.
“We do not have the luxury of weeks or months to respond to this crisis,” Patton told lawmakers. “We must learn from other states and countries and work to prepare as quickly as we can to address this in Wisconsin, and we have days to do it.”
Evers’ plan also included several items Republicans strongly oppose, such as barring insurers from canceling the policies of people who don’t pay their premiums and suspending the photo ID requirement for voting.
It could take up to 30 days to receive the $2.3 billion in funding for Wisconsin included in federal legislation signed Friday by President Donald Trump, Baldauff said.
About $1.9 billion of that will go to the state, with rest going to its largest jurisdictions — Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and Dane County.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau has determined the state can buy equipment now and doesn’t need to wait for the federal cash to show up in its coffers. It can use federal money it already has for its routine operations and pay back those accounts when the new money arrives, according to the fiscal bureau.
Legislative approval is not needed because a long-standing statute gives governors wide latitude on how to spend federal money, according to the fiscal bureau.
Evers’ proposal would spend at least $700 million using state and federal dollars but many measures have an unknown price tag, the administration said.
“We don’t know how many people are going to get sick. We don’t know how many hospitals we’re going to need,” Baldauff said. “We know we’re asking for broad authority but that is because there’s no possible way to know every single thing that we are going to need.”
Evers’ plan includes broadening a number of public benefits programs using $100 million in federal aid and $25 million in state funds. Like other ideas of his, those will be sidelined without support from lawmakers.
While Republicans and Democrats sparred Saturday over Evers’ ability to buy equipment, GOP lawmakers haven’t discussed with Evers ways to revise the bill or whether they support any of its measures since lawmakers received it more than a week ago, according to Baldauff.
Evers wants to expand Wisconsin Shares, a program that pays for child care costs. Additional help is needed to provide child care for health-care workers and first responders, especially now that schools have been closed, the administration argues.
In addition, Evers wants to provide hazard pay to child care providers that stay open during the health emergency to ensure care centers don’t lose workers.
“If we need to incentivize that pay we will because we can’t have a situation where our nurses and paramedics don’t have a place to send their kids,” Baldauff said.
In a related move, Evers wants to help pay for the child-care costs for health care workers and others whose services are consider essential during the emergency.
Evers also wants to enhance a lending program for those seeking work. Under it, individuals could get loans of up to $1,600 each if they were facing a financial crisis related to the pandemic.
Evers is seeking to expand the welfare-to-work program known as Wisconsin Works or W-2 because many people won’t be working because the pandemic has shuttered businesses. It would provide $653 to individuals who are facing immediate financial crises.
The state would provide up to $1,200 for anyone who loses work because of the outbreak by broadening an existing program that helps those facing homelessness.
The plan also includes other elements Republicans oppose, including a number of changes to voting requirements.
Evers’ administration said temporarily eliminating the voter ID law was important because people may have difficulty renewing their driver’s licenses or acquiring other identity records during the emergency.
Evers also wants to give people more time to use online voter registration to limit the number of people registering at the polls or at clerks’ offices, where they could be exposed to people with coronavirus. And he has proposed suspending the requirement that witnesses sign a certificate for those who vote absentee.
The changes are necessary to ease voting when many will have a difficult time getting out of their homes, according to administration.
‘I hope they are up to it’
Fitzgerald said Saturday in an interview the GOP lawmakers were instead working on a new “roadmap” and would negotiate with Evers and lawmakers on its measures.
“I think they are doing the best they can but no one has convinced me that everything has been addressed at this point. I hope they are up to it,” Fitzgerald said.
“There is a failure going on behind the scenes here and there’s political cover being developed so they are not exposed that there’s a failure to procure the equipment,” he said.
Fitzgerald and Vos have repeatedly clashed with Evers but days ago offered a much more deferential tone because of the health crisis. But Fitzgerald’s comments Saturday showed the two remain at odds as much as ever.
But Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat from Oshkosh, said officials need to set partisanship aside and show they are “capable of governing.” He said the Legislature should act with urgency and shouldn’t try to micromanage the administration.
“No one has any interest or appetite for politics in this atmosphere and they shouldn’t — and we should all recognize that,” Hintz said.
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