Gov. Tony Evers wants the state to spend more than $700 million to help combat the novel coronavirus and its cascading fallout under a sweeping bill that seeks to direct more funding to various agencies, temporarily suspend Wisconsin’s voter ID requirements and ensure teachers continue collecting paychecks amid the pandemic.
Among the high-cost items in the draft legislation, shared by Republican legislative leaders and Evers’ office Saturday, are up to $300 million for the Department of Military Affairs and up to $200 million in state funds for the Department of Administration to cover costs tied to the public health emergency — as well as the ability for both to request more dollars from the Legislature’s powerful budget committee as needed.
But one proposal not included in the price tag would create an unlimited state funding stream for Wisconsin health officials to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and any future health emergencies, an analysis of the bill from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows.
The language publicly emerged more than two weeks after Evers declared a state of emergency to mobilize the state’s health officials and others to respond to the outbreak of the virus, which as of Saturday has left more than a dozen dead across Wisconsin.
The Democratic executive and Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly have been in discussions since to navigate the state’s legislative response, though few details have been revealed to the public -- despite the proposal being shared with GOP leaders a week ago.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, haven’t embraced immediate state action as they awaited progress on the $2 trillion stimulus package that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday.
Pointing to the estimated $2.2 billion Wisconsin is expected to get under the effort, according to LFB, Fitzgerald and Vos in a Saturday afternoon letter to Evers wrote that the state should leverage new federal funds to obtain necessary supplies and respond to the crisis instead of advancing a costly state bill.
“Our current general fund balance can’t support that request, so we are very concerned about the impact on other vital parts of state government if we are not careful in the use of state dollars,” they wrote.
Projections earlier this year showed the state would end the biennium with $620 million in the general fund, though Vos, R-Rochester, this week said it’s likely that, due to economic fallout from COVID-19, there wouldn’t be a budget surplus.
But Evers’ chief of staff Maggie Gau in an email response Saturday evening noted the federal government’s efforts so far “have yet to provide all of the necessary resources that Wisconsin needs.”
“While I recognize that neither of you were interested in convening the legislature because you preferred to wait on the federal government, our administration and our state do not share your patience in responding to the COVID-19 crisis that has already taken the lives of 13 Wisconsinites in our state,” she wrote.
Under Evers’ legislation, the state would make available $50 million annually in grants to health care providers, create a $25 million grant program to aid child care providers impacted by the pandemic, direct an additional $25 million to the state’s jobs agency; appropriate $20 million for a public health emergency local assistance program administered by DOA; and allow DHS to hire an additional 64 full-time employees for the Division of Public Health at a cost of more than $10 million over the biennium.
The 65-page bill draft would also institute greater tenant protections; waive voter ID requirements and the requirement that a witness sign and address an absentee ballot envelope as well as extend electronic registrations for elections that occur during Evers’ public health emergency (including the April 7 presidential primary and Supreme Court election); and temporarily prevent insurers from canceling insurance policies for nonpayment of premiums until three months after the payments were due.
And it would repeal the one-week waiting period to collect unemployment for workers who have been laid off, an initiative Evers publicly called for in a press call March 17. The idea isn’t a new one. Evers in his first budget proposal also sought to eliminate the waiting period, though Republicans — who approved its inclusion in the 2011-13 budget under GOP Gov. Scott Walker — rejected it.
Unemployment claims have skyrocketed over the last two weeks, according to preliminary figures from the state Department of Workforce Development. From March 15-21, 69,342 applied for unemployment, compared to 5,216 over the same period last year.
In addition to the bill, Evers’ office wants Republican leaders to sign off on a resolution that would indefinitely extend the state’s public health emergency until it’s revoked by a future executive order or joint resolution of the Legislature.
Currently under state law, a state of emergency could not surpass 60 days unless the Legislature votes to extend it.
Buying additional equipment
Evers' office has also opted to move forward with the purchase of 10,000 ventilators and 1 million masks after sparring with GOP leaders over whether the administration had the authority to do so without new legislation.
In their letter, Fitzgerald and Vos drew attention to the issue as they urged Evers to “immediately and without delay” purchase personal protective equipment (including gowns and gloves), ventilators and masks. The items, they alleged, were ones that Evers’ staff said they intended to purchase “but have delayed making the decision.”
“Why can’t we use federal funds to allow our own resources to be invested where federal dollars aren’t planned to be utilized?” they wrote. “As we said during our discussions today, the state does not have this money to give you unlimited sums, and furthermore, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, it is unnecessary.”
But Gau in her response refuted the claims and wrote the state and the administration haven’t waited to act on acquiring supplies, noting that as of Saturday, officials had spent nearly $7.5 million on needed medical and public health equipment. Still, she wrote the office would move forward with bigger purchases.
“While ideally the Wisconsin legislature would act to provide the necessary resources, the Department is using its broad statutory authorities under Chapters 16 and 20, Wis. Stats., to expedite our purchasing efforts and ensure Wisconsin has the necessary resources to respond [to] the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote. “We simply will not wait for the Wisconsin legislature or the Trump Administration to act.”
DHS officials have said they obtained some equipment from the strategic national stockpile, including 104,680 N95 respirators, 260,840 face/surgical masks, 48,168 face shields, 40,512 surgical gowns, 192 coveralls and 70,375 pairs of gloves as of Thursday. Evers this week also called on companies and other organizations to donate or sell any unused equipment to the state at https://covid19supplies.wi.gov/Donations.
Last week, the state asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help in obtaining medical gear for law enforcement, firefighters and others.
Meanwhile, a top DOA official on Friday stressed that the state has yet to receive federal support. An email from Deputy Secretary Chris Patton to legislative leaders and the governor’s office showed that the state was moving forward with attempts to procure necessary items although the state’s receipt of federal funding “remains unresolved and vendor payments will be due prior to the state’s receipt of any available federal assistance.”
That correspondence, which Evers’ office shared with reporters, noted the state was seeking to coordinate large purchases with regional states to “aggressively …. Increase our buying power.”
Still, the LFB has determined the state could buy the supplies now and use existing federal funds for routine operations, then pay back the accounts once the new funding arrives to the state.
Broader powers under a state health emergency
The bill draft’s unlimited, sum-sufficient state funding appropriation for DHS is part of the language’s efforts to provide the agency with greater powers in responding to a state public health emergency.
Doing so, a bill background document shared by Evers’ office said, would give the agency “the flexibility to expend funds and increase staffing capacity as necessary to appropriately respond.”
The memo was sent to legislative leaders of both parties on Thursday ahead of officials’ planned phone call to discuss COVID-19.
It noted that DHS started to accumulate staffing costs tied to the emerging pandemic back in February, when costs ballooned by nearly 500%, and costs are expected to continue rising at that rate for the next two months before leveling off.
Allowing the agency to spend freely, the document said, would allow DHS to make grants, facilitate coordination, enter into contracts, conduct investigations, facilitate research, purchase products and more.
Under the bill, DHS would be required to submit a report to Evers and the Legislature detailing any money spent using that authority within a year after the health emergency has ended.
In addition to that expansion of powers, the legislation would also waive the requirement that DHS submit waivers to the Joint Finance Committee during a public health emergency, a move the memo said “allows the Department to rapidly respond to opportunities made available by the federal government.”
DHS would also benefit from an additional $17.4 million for its Division of Public Health to increase aid to local health departments; an extra 64 positions at the division at a cost of almost $10.4 million; and more under the legislation.
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