Republican plan to end the mask requirement could cost Wisconsinites $49 million in food benefits

A sign outside This Is It! at 418 E. Wells St. on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, requires all those entering to wear a mask. Patrons must also have their temperature taken upon entering. Since bars and restaurants have started to reopen during the pandemic, it has been necessary to change how they once operated to accommodate social distancing for patrons.

MADISON – A Republican plan to eliminate Wisconsin’s mask requirement will likely cut off nearly $50 million in food assistance to low-income people and those thrown out of work during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A COVID-19 package Congress passed last year gave states additional funding for food stamps if they have emergency health orders in place. Republican state lawmakers plan to end Wisconsin’s health emergency order on Thursday, which would prevent nearly 243,000 households from collecting $49.3 million in assistance, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. 

Republicans introduced their plan a week ago and rushed it to the Senate floor without holding a hearing on it. Until late Wednesday, they had given no indication their effort could take away food assistance in the middle of a pandemic that has forced thousands of people out of work. 

The Senate voted 18-13 Tuesday to end the emergency order and mask requirement, with two Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition. Republicans who control the Assembly plan to take up the measure Thursday.

Their vote would immediately end the emergency order — and take away the additional food assistance.

“Thursday’s repeal vote places hungry Wisconsinites at risk of deeper hunger, additional pain and lasting suffering caused by the pandemic,” said a statement from Sherrie Tussler, the executive director of the Hunger Task Force. “This repeal vote is not just about masks — it’s about feeding our neighbors.”

To help stave off the economic fallout from the pandemic, Congress passed legislation in March that boosted funding for food stamps. Under that law, the federal government has been allotting larger sums to Wisconsin and other states that have declared health emergencies.

The increase means each participant in Wisconsin’s FoodShare program receives a larger amount than they ordinarily would. By ending the health emergency, families will see their benefits shrink, according to a memo the fiscal bureau wrote late Wednesday. 

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, who asked the fiscal bureau for the memo, said he was frustrated that Republicans hadn’t seemed to realize the effects of their plans.

“Certainly this was not thoroughly researched and done,” Goyke said Wednesday night. “I’m glad that we got a question posed in time to get an answer. I just don’t know that it’s in time to get Republicans in the Legislature to change their mind.

“If you’re asking me should a lawmaker know whether their resolution takes $49 million of benefits away from a quarter million Wisconsinites? Yes, they should know that. And if they don’t, they shouldn’t be in public office.”

Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater, who led the effort to end the health emergency, learned of the effects on the FoodShare program on Wednesday, a day after the Senate voted on it, according to his aide Mike Mikalsen. 

Nass believes separate legislation could restore the lost FoodShare benefits and wants the Assembly to move ahead with plans to revoke the health emergency, Mikalsen said by email.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not immediately say Wednesday whether Vos knew of the effects of the measure before scheduling a vote on it for Thursday. 

State law allows governors to issue health emergency orders that expire after 60 days if lawmakers don’t extend them. Republicans have not been willing to extend Evers’ orders, so he has issued a series of them. 

Republicans argue Evers is exceeding his authority by issuing orders after his first one expired. That prompted the Republicans to pursue revoking Evers’ latest emergency order, which includes the mask requirement. 

Evers does not have the power to veto their action. He could try to issue a new emergency order, but lawmakers could quickly revoke it or take him to court over the issue. There is already a case before the state Supreme Court over the governor’s powers when it comes to health emergencies. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.