A Republican-authored bill in the state Legislature would direct Gov. Tony Evers to spend $100 million in federal COVID-19 funds on mental health programs in schools.
The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Jon Plumer, R-Lodi, also would require state agencies to report each department’s use of any federal stimulus funds received throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, the inclusion of language dictating how the governor uses American Rescue Plan Act funds could mean the bill is likely heading to a veto by Evers, who has already struck down two similar measures related to his use of stimulus funds.
As governor, Evers has sole discretion over how federal stimulus funds are spent.
“Gov. Evers believes what’s best for our kids is what’s best for our state, which is why he has repeatedly proposed increased investments in mental health support for students, many of which were cut by Republicans in the Legislature,” Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback said in an email. “Instead of playing politics, Republicans should use readily available state resources to make the meaningful investments our kids and our schools deserve.”
During an Assembly Committee on Mental Health meeting Tuesday, Plumer said the measure aims to address needs for increased mental health funding through the Department of Public Instruction, while also enhancing transparency among all state departments regarding the use of COVID-19 stimulus funds. Plumer added that department reports on the use of stimulus funds should not create additional burden on agencies, as departments already have to file such reports with the federal government.
“We need to do what we can to address the mental health needs and this bill will help with that,” Plumer said.
Chris Reader, executive vice president of the conservative Institute for Reforming Government, said the proposed bill takes into account mental health concerns that existed before the pandemic.
“Layer on top of those preexisting concerns the unknown mental health impacts of the pandemic and the increase in anxiety and depression among youth, and it is clear that using federal COVID funds for these grants is a necessary and worthwhile goal,” Reader said.
The committee is schedule to vote on the bill at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Plumer added he had not spoken with Evers’ office about the bill or the availability of federal stimulus funds.
“I don’t know about you but we have a tough time getting a hold of the governor, so we have not reached out,” Plumer said.
A hefty list
Last month, Evers provided an update on his planned allocations for more than $4.5 billion in federal coronavirus stimulus funds received by the state. All told, Evers has spent more than $2 billion on emergency COVID-19 response efforts, public health measures and economic programs for businesses and communities.
Other planned allocations for remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds include $525 million for pandemic response measures, $200 million for infrastructure projects, including broadband, $650 million in small business grants, $101 million to the tourism industry, $130 million in workforce initiatives and $510 million for economic recovery programs. Another $417 million is being held in reserve for future response needs.
Evers initially proposed a $53.5 million increase in school mental health funding in the 2021-23 biennial budget. Republicans reduced that to a $19 million increase. Two years earlier, Evers proposed in the 2019-21 budget a $44 million increase in mental health funding for schools, but Republicans reduced that to a $6 million increase over the biennium.
In a response to the proposed bill, DPI said additional funding for mental health programs would be welcome, but the proposal could have been funded using state dollars in the previous budget session, which would have provided a stable funding source rather than through one-time federal funds.
“What we have before us is an attempt by our legislative leaders to use our students and educators for political gain. It needs to stop,” DPI wrote in a statement. “Wisconsin students deserve sustainable investments in their mental health, and the legislative proposal is not that.”
DPI also noted that the bill’s proposed timeline for spending funds is “not doable,” and distributing funds on a per pupil basis would be a more efficient and effective use of funds.
The proposed legislation marks the latest clash between legislative Republicans and the Democratic governor over the use of billions in federal stimulus dollars pumped into the state over the course of the pandemic.
Evers vetoed legislation in April that would have given the GOP-controlled Legislature control over how federal coronavirus stimulus dollars are spent. In February, Evers vetoed a similar measure that would have provided the Legislature’s budget committee veto power over the use of federal COVID-19 funds.