Federal officials and Evers preserve $70 million a month in food assistance in Wisconsin

MADISON – Federal authorities have signed off on a deal that will preserve about $70 million a month in federal aid to provide food to low-income families in Wisconsin.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told officials Tuesday that families in Wisconsin would continue to receive assistance after reaching an agreement with the administration of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.  

The agreement means about 400,000 households will continue to receive extra aid in May that they were at risk of losing because of a recent court decision.

“More than $70 million a month means we can get support to a lot of folks across our state who are still struggling in the midst of a pandemic and need help putting food on the table,” Evers said in a statement.

Details of the arrangement emerged shortly after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos offered a plan to restore funding for the program that was all but certain to fail because it included provisions opposed by Democrats. 

Congress last year gave states additional funding for food assistance if they declared emergencies because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wisconsin has been receiving $50 million or more a month in extra funding because of that program. The exact amount state residents receive changes from month to month and it recently increased substantially because of changes made by President Joe Biden’s administration. 

But two weeks ago, the state Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling found that Evers no longer has the power to declare COVID-related emergencies. That set the stage for Wisconsin families to lose the additional funding — now estimated to be about $70 million — for May.

The program for all states is expected to run through June, and Wisconsin was at risk of losing another $70 million for that month as well.

A behind-the-scenes maneuver

Last week, Wisconsin Health Services Secretary Karen Timberlake quietly issued an emergency declaration that said the state would continue to coordinate the COVID response effort and assist local officials with contact tracing.

That declaration led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change course and provide the additional funding for May.

The extra aid has helped low-income families and senior citizens struggling during the pandemic.

Demita Prescott of Milwaukee lost her job as a personal care worker early in the pandemic, and her two children have been going to school virtually. With her two kids at home, she said the grocery bills went up by a couple of hundred dollars or more per month.

Prescott said the extra aid has been essential.

“I shouldn’t have to choose between paying my phone bill and putting food on the table,” she said. “We didn’t ask for this pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, Barbara Embry, 71, of Milwaukee, got about $16 per month in food assistance. Now, with the extra assistance, she is able to eat healthier and buy foods like chicken and fresh produce that she usually couldn’t afford or could buy only sparingly, she said.

Embry has a neuromuscular disease that sometimes makes it difficult to swallow food, so she often relies on liquid foods that can be expensive, such as Ensure, to get the protein and the nutrients she needs.

“It’s just nice to know if I need something, I’m able to get it,” she said.

Republican offers plan that would be hard to pass

Earlier Tuesday, Vos offered a different path to regain the funding — one that would be unlikely to pass.

He said the money could be restored if lawmakers overrode one of Evers’ vetoes from two months ago. But Republicans would need Democratic votes for that approach and they oppose the legislation in question. 

The legislation, Assembly Bill 1, included a provision that would have established a limited emergency to preserve the federal funding in food assistance. 

Evers vetoed it in February because it included several elements the governor opposes, such as one that would put lawmakers in charge of $3.2 billion in federal aid that Evers now controls. The bill would also ban employers from requiring their workers to get vaccinated and prevent health officials from closing churches and other places of worship because of COVID-19. 

When Evers issued his veto, the state was still receiving the extra federal funding for food assistance because the court hadn’t ruled on the issue yet. 

Vos called overriding the veto as the “most feasible” way to address the problem even though Democrats opposed it. He showed no interest in taking up legislation that dealt only with restoring the food assistance. 

“We already have AB 1 and that’s the vehicle that we enacted,” he said. “So unfortunately it seems like Gov. Evers has to make some decisions. … He has to be willing to work with us. It can’t be all his way or no way.”

Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, but not by the two-thirds margins they would need to override a veto. 

Vos’ proposal became largely meaningless shortly after he described it because of the deal between Evers and the Biden administration.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of rural Dane County said through an aide that his office had consulted with the Biden administration to try to restore the funding. Two other Democrats in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation said Republican state lawmakers should have addressed the issue. 

John Kraus, a spokesman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, said Baldwin voted to provide the additional funding and backed Evers’ decision to declare the health emergency that the state Supreme Court threw out. 

“This is a problem the Republican-controlled state Legislature can and should fix. Their opposition to people wearing masks shouldn’t result in families going hungry,” Kraus said in a statement.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee also put the blame on Republican lawmakers.

“Congresswoman Moore hopes that the Legislature can remedy this issue to ensure this lifeline remains accessible to Wisconsinites,” Moore spokeswoman Samara Sheff said. “This is the consequence of GOP justices on the state Supreme Court and GOP legislators politicizing the pandemic and blatantly disregarding COVID-19 precautionary measures.”

Sarah Volpenhein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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