Republicans propose giving finance committee the power to cut school aid, slash spending as part of coronavirus relief bill

MADISON – Seeking to further curb Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ power, Republican lawmakers are proposing to give a handful of lawmakers the ability to cut school aid and slash state spending if a deficit materializes.

Evers said that idea, which is one of dozens of potential provisions state lawmakers are negotiating for legislation to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, would likely push him to veto the bill altogether.   

“‘Seriously consider it’ would probably be putting it mildly,” Evers said Wednesday in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We can’t have that as part of it. That’s too much authority in the hands of a couple people.”

But a veto would also prevent the state from providing more help to the unemployed and receiving more federal aid to cover health-care costs. Those are two of Evers’ top goals as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across Wisconsin and the economy worsens.  

Republican legislative leaders said the relief package is still being negotiated with the help of Democratic legislative leaders. 

“For almost a month we have been at work on a bill that includes essential provisions dealing with everything from Medicaid to the first week of unemployment,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement. “Millions of relief dollars are at stake for Wisconsin. Suggesting he’ll veto the full bill publicly, while privately we’re still negotiating, is irresponsible.

“We’ll keep working with the minority party to put together a bill that can hopefully pass soon with bipartisan support,” he said.

Republicans did not collaborate with Senate Democrats on the proposals released Wednesday, according to Kate Constalie, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said his office “kept in regular communication with Republican leadership to share ideas on a bipartisan package we could all support.”

He said Democrats shared a list of priorities with Republican leadership last week that they would like to see considered as part of a package and GOP legislative leaders shared some of their concerns in response.

“There is mutual concern about the anticipated budget shortfall the state faces due to significant loss of revenue and increased demand for state services increasing costs,” Hintz said about the provision that Evers’ opposes.

“However, Democrats have made clear that any proposal on how to best manage that shortfall and provide certainty to schools, local government, the UW System and other state programs have to maintain the role of the Governor and his ability to sign off,” he said.

The GOP plan, a summary of which was provided to the Journal Sentinel by Evers’ office, comes three weeks after Evers first proposed to lawmakers at least $706 million worth of spending to provide relief for the state as the virus outbreak shutters businesses, infects thousands and grinds daily life to a halt. 

At the time, leaders said Evers’ proposal was a nonstarter in large part because of a provision that would provide the state Department of Health Services unlimited spending authority during the public health emergency.

Evers said he believes the two sides can compromise.

“The good news is, I’m glad we have a response from the Republican side — it’s good to see that effort, putting pen to paper,” Evers said.

The GOP plan comes less than two years after Republicans passed lame-duck laws that trimmed Evers’ authority even before he took office. Under those laws, legislators gained more control of public benefits programs, economic development efforts and litigation involving the state.

The new measures are aimed at responding to the coronavirus outbreak and the economic problems that come with it. The legislation would suspend a one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits, and allow the state to claim an extra $150 million every three months in federal aid for the state’s Medicaid programs such as BadgerCare Plus.  

But the legislation also includes a provision that would allow the Legislature’s GOP- controlled Joint Finance Committee to reduce state spending — including aid to schools — on its own if the Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows an estimated deficit in the state’s general fund in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Normally the Legislature and governor have to agree on any cuts.

If the governor approved the legislation, he would have the ability to veto any spending cuts made by the committee. But the committee could easily override his vetoes because Republicans have a 12-4 majority on the committee — more than the two-thirds margin needed to override vetoes.

Evers said he would likely block their legislation if it includes the provision allowing the committee to cut spending. But that would leave in limbo the provisions he and Republicans support.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said by releasing and criticizing a portion of the package, Evers was damaging the effort on behalf of GOP and Democratic legislative leaders to reach a bipartisan package to provide relief for the state. 

“Negotiations were being had between legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle to come up w/a pkg that hopefully all will support,” he tweeted.  

The federal government is providing states with help to fight coronavirus, but the governor and Legislature must act to take advantage of some of it — such as the additional funding for Medicaid. In addition, Evers and lawmakers have said they want to allow people to receive unemployment benefits right away rather than having to wait a week.

But if the differences over spending cuts persist, none of that will happen

The governor said Wednesday if lawmakers don’t take action within two weeks they would be telling residents that state officials don’t know how to respond to the pandemic. 

“The message sent to the people of Wisconsin is that this isn’t a big deal and the fact that we have people suffering financially, physically, health-wise and otherwise isn’t a big deal and I know none of the Republicans actually feel that way,” he said. “The people of Wisconsin would, I think, be flabbergasted if we just do nothing.”

Republicans want more control of spending because state tax collections are expected to quickly dry up as much of the economy shuts down. The proposal would allow them to determine where to restrain spending without having to negotiate with Evers.

The power they are seeking is vast. It would allow them to reduce aid to schools, local governments and University of Wisconsin campuses. They could also scale back programs aimed at helping the poor and those who have trouble getting health-care coverage.

“It sounds like they’re making Finance a mini-legislature,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach of West Point said by text message.

Republicans have not said where they might want to make cuts, but have signaled they want flexibility because of how bad the economy could turn amid the pandemic.

This week Rep. John Nygren, a Republican from Marinette who is co-chairman of the finance committee, said the state may need to freeze spending after July 1.

Congress has allocated about $2 billion to Wisconsin to help fight coronavirus. Evers — not lawmakers — has control of how to spend that money.

Others provisions in the GOP plan would allow health care workers to delay renewing their credentials until the public health emergency expires, provide temporary licenses to out-of-state health care workers, and reduce the number of hours nurses aides would need to spend training — a measure Evers vetoed earlier this year.

The draft plan also would withhold federal funding from hospitals and isolation facilities if they did not submit daily reports to the Department of Health Services on the number of new positive coronavirus tests results for workers and patients, the number of patients in the facility, the number of presumptive positive cases, the total number of coronavirus patients, and the number of patients using ventilators. 

Hospitals also would be required to weekly report the number of patients who moved from regular care to intensive care, whether the patients are now using ventilators, and the amount of time each patient spent at each level of care, among other data. 

By April 14, each hospital and isolation facility also would be required to report to DHS the number of ventilators they own. 

The draft proposal also would require coroners and medical examiners to issue a cremation permit within 48 hours for anyone who has died due to coronavirus infection.

Interest charges and penalties for late payment on property taxes would be suspended until October under another measure. 

It does not include many of the major proposals in Evers’ first proposal, including $10 million to hire 64 new staff at the Department of Health Services and an unlimited spending authority for the agency during the outbreak. 

Contact Patrick Marley and Molly Beck at patrick.marley@jrn.com and molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow on Twitter at @patrickdmarley and @mollybeck.

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