MADISON – Assembly Republicans shook up their plan to repeal Wisconsin’s mask requirement Wednesday, at least temporarily delaying the effort as they try to make sure the state doesn’t lose about $50 million in federal food assistance every month.
Because the Assembly is changing course, the state Senate would have to take up the issue again as well. The Assembly will vote on it Thursday, but it’s unclear when the Senate might consider it.
Even if Republicans carry through with their plans to eliminate the mask requirement, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers may try to put a new one into effect to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Such a move could prompt new litigation or further rounds of votes in the Legislature.
The repeal comes as less than 10% of Wisconsin’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19 and when health care workers are bracing for the potential impact of new variants of the virus, which cause it to spread more easily.
Nearly 60 organizations are opposed to the repeal, including groups that represent doctors, hospitals, small businesses and educators, among others.
“We all want a return to normal, but we need to reduce transmission first,” the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards and the Wisconsin Public Health Association said in a statement on Monday.
“We’ve said it before: masking is not a partisan political issue; it is a public health necessity. The science is settled and masks work. In combination with social distancing and regular handwashing, wearing a mask is an essential tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the groups wrote in the statement.
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Republicans in the state Senate last week voted to end Evers’ emergency declaration and the mask mandate that goes with it. Assembly Republicans were prepared to take the same vote but backed off after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the plan would cause the state to lose tens of millions of dollars a month in federal aid for its FoodShare program.
Congress last year approved giving states additional food assistance to low-income people because of the pandemic. But to get the extra help, states must have emergency declarations in place.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester on Wednesday offered a modified path for lawmakers. Under his plan, Assembly Republicans would pass a different version of the resolution to end the mask requirement. Separately, they would amend a COVID-19 relief package in a way that Republicans believe would preserve the federal food assistance.
Senate Republicans had taken a similar approach, but Vos said he had concluded their effort would not succeed. He argued legislation the Senate passed last week would give Evers more power, not less, when it came to issuing emergency orders.
“As we did our due diligence, legislative attorneys and conservative legal experts confirmed the Senate amendment had unintended consequences and would actually expand the governor’s emergency powers,” Vos said in a statement.
It’s unclear whether more federal funding is in jeopardy with the Republicans’ action to repeal the governor’s emergency order.
Aides to Evers have repeatedly ignored questions by the Journal Sentinel about how the absence of the order would affect emergency federal aid being used to provide services in Wisconsin.
According to an analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, flexibility given to states to use transit funding for costs related to COVID-19 could be affected by the absence of the emergency order.
Vos said he hoped the Senate would follow the Assembly’s lead and vote on the measure in mid-February.
Senate Republican responds
Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater said Republicans should have acted last year to end the emergency order and mask mandate. But he said he was pleased Assembly Republicans were acting now.
“If appearing to dominate the state Senate is what it takes for Speaker Vos to finally join the state Senate in fighting to end the unlawful acts of Gov. Evers, so be it,” he said in a statement. “It is time to get this done and stop pretending that the delay in acting in 2020 didn’t cause harm.”
Wisconsin law allows governors to declare emergencies for up to 60 days and allows legislators to make them longer. Lawmakers haven’t extended any of Evers’ health emergencies, so he’s been issuing new orders when older ones expire. Republicans argue he doesn’t have that power, fueling their effort to vote down his latest emergency declaration and the mask requirement.
Their plan does not account for a potential response from Evers — one in which he immediately issues a new mask requirement.
That would spark more fighting and could lead to additional litigation. Already the issue of Evers’ emergency powers is before the state Supreme Court.
The measure that is meant to preserve the federal food assistance is included in legislation that has some provisions Evers opposes. That raises the prospect of a veto of that bill.
It’s unclear if the legislation can even get to him because Assembly Republicans and Senate Republicans have been unable to agree on the details of the bill, which would put $100 million toward fighting the pandemic.
Contact Patrick Marley and Molly Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.