MADISON – The Republican co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget committee said lawmakers have done enough to fight the surging coronavirus pandemic Thursday, echoing the comments of another GOP legislator this week who said there is nothing more they can do.
Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills contended Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has all the powers he needs to deal with COVID-19, even as she and other Republican lawmakers have gone to court to try to limit his ability to act on his own.
In an interview with the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network, Darling contended lawmakers had given Evers free rein to spend $2 billion in federal aid to fight the coronavirus. Actually, Evers had the ability to decide how to spend that money under existing laws and legislators did not do anything to ease his access to it.
“We said, ‘Let’s give him the money, let’s give him flexibility and he can do what he thinks is best,’ ” Darling said.
Because of the power Evers has to handle the coronavirus, lawmakers don’t need to do anything more about the illness, she said.
“We don’t need to come in because we gave him all the flexibility that he needs,” said Darling, who is co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
Evers for months has urged lawmakers to do more to address the coronavirus, for instance by making more state funding available for testing and contact tracing once federal aid runs out.
“If Senator Darling believes being ‘flexible’ is suing (over) all of the governor’s efforts to combat this pandemic, then it truly shows how out of touch she is with both her district and the state of Wisconsin,” said a statement from Eric LaGesse, the director of the State Senate Democratic Committee.
Darling faces Democrat Neal Plotkin of Glendale in the Nov. 3 election. Plotkin does not mention the coronavirus on his campaign website.
More than 1,700 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin, including a record 48 who were reported on Wednesday. Cases are climbing, with average daily cases hitting 3,396, one of the highest the state has had.
Darling gets marijuana facts wrong
Also in the interview, Darling said she supports legalizing medical marijuana — a measure she voted against last year — and she incorrectly claimed the state already allowed its use. Afterward, Darling spokesman Bob Delaporte said she had misspoken and meant that legislators had legalized CBD oil, a marijuana derivative that lacks the component that gives users a high.
Darling wants to meet with her colleagues before deciding whether to support a medical marijuana program, Delaporte said.
But in the WisconsinEye interview, Darling spoke more broadly, saying she supports medical marijuana but not recreational marijuana.
“We do legalize medical marijuana and I think that’s really important,” she said. “But I think to legalize recreational marijuana is going down a dangerous path.”
Darling and other Republicans stripped a medical marijuana provision out of Evers’ proposed budget last year.
Republicans fight mask requirement
Darling’s comments on COVID-19 were in line with ones made this week by Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, a New Berlin Republican who leads the Assembly Health Committee. On Tuesday he told WisconsinEye “there is nothing that government can do” regarding COVID-19 beyond legislation passed in April that helped hospitals, gave insurance protections to those with the illness and limited lawsuits against businesses.
Republicans have gone to court to block major parts of Evers’ coronavirus response plan. In May, the state Supreme Court sided with Republican legislators and ended the administration’s stay-at-home order.
This month, Republican lawmakers filed a legal brief to end the state’s mask mandate. A judge upheld the mask requirement and the conservative law firm that brought the case has appealed.
Darling told WisconsinEye she didn’t think Evers had the power on his own to put in place the mask requirement but suggested she might support having the Legislature enact one.
“I’m all for masks, but I think we need to do it legally through the Legislature,” she said.
That sentiment conflicts with what she said in July when she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she wanted lawmakers to immediately end the mask requirement. Any mask requirements should be established at the local level, she said then.
“I think it should be up to local control and not be a demand from the governor as a major statewide mandate,” she said then. “Our state is different in different places and to take away local control to decide that I think really is an abuse of power.”
Evers said during an online news conference Thursday that he believes many Republicans support masks but they are suggesting they don’t by opposing it in court.
“That sends a message to the people of Wisconsin that Republicans don’t care about this. I don’t believe that for a minute. I know Republicans that do wear masks,” Evers said.
But Republicans need to speak up about how masks help slow the spread of the virus, he said.
“I encourage them to speak up, too. This is not a one-man band here,” Evers said.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.