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Tony Evers issues new statewide mask order after GOP votes to strike current measure down

From the Top 10 Wisconsin political stories of 2021 (based on what you, the readers, read) series
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About an hour after Assembly Republicans voted to strike down Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency order and mask mandate, the Democratic governor issued a new, identical measure to maintain a statewide mask rule.

Evers’ new order marks the latest in an ongoing battle between the governor and state Republicans, who control the Legislature, over the use of a statewide mask mandate — one of the governor’s last remaining tools aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, which has killed nearly 6,000 people in the state.

With a new order, Republicans may be forced to start the process of voting down the measure all over again, which one GOP Senator has already said he plans to do. The most likely outcome appears to be an eventual court decision. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has yet to rule on a challenge to the governor’s mask mandate.

“If the Legislature keeps playing politics and we don’t keep wearing masks, we’re going to see more preventable deaths and it’s going to take even longer to get our state and our economy back on track,” Evers said in a video announcing the new order.

The Assembly voted 52-42 on Thursday to approve a joint resolution, which has already passed in the Senate, eliminating the governor’s emergency order and mask rule. It is the first COVID-19-related measure to pass both GOP-led chambers since last April. Republican leaders planned to sign the measure on Friday.

Republican members Joel Kitchens, Jeff Mursau, Todd Novak, Loren Oldenburg, Jessie Rodriguez, David Steffen and Ron Tusler voted with Democrats against the measure. As a joint resolution, it does not require Evers’ signature.

Evers has issued multiple emergency orders and mask mandates since August, while the Legislature has refused to extend those orders. The governor has defended the use of such orders to extend the mask mandate as a means to adjust to the changing and ongoing pandemic.

But Republicans say eliminating Evers’ order has nothing to do with face masks, but rather that the governor has overstepped his authority by repeatedly initiating emergency orders beyond the allowed 60-day limit.

“We have said consistently this is about the governor exerting unlawful powers that he does not have the right to have,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters before the Assembly convened Thursday.

Assembly Democrats immediately pushed back against Republican claims that eliminating the emergency order has nothing to do with face masks, which the CDC and health care officials have repeatedly said are effective to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Republicans on Thursday also rejected a Democratic proposal to include in COVID-19 relief legislation measures to keep a statewide mask rule in place.

“In the face of nearly 6,000 deaths, Republicans will strike down the only statewide tool that remains,” Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said before the Assembly vote Thursday. “They may claim that this is about government overreach but the people of Wisconsin know exactly what this is about — politics over common sense. Ideology over their safety.”

Nearly 60 organizations including hospitals, chambers of commerce and unions have filed in opposition to the Republican measure and have asked them to leave a statewide mask mandate in place. Almost 70% of respondents to a Marquette University Law School poll in August supported a state mask rule.

Rep. Rodriguez, R-Oak Creek, who voted against the joint resolution, said in a statement Evers overstepped his authority by issuing multiple emergency orders without legislative approval. However, she said the measure passed by the Legislature does nothing to prevent the governor from passing another similar order.

“Only the courts can make a definitive ruling on whether the governor has the statutory authority to issue multiple and successive states of emergency without legislative approval,” she said.

Rodriguez added her “concern is that the timing of this joint resolution could send mixed messages to the public concerning our priorities.”

The governor’s latest order may very well mark yet another legal battle between the Democratic governor and Republicans in the Legislature. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with the GOP in striking down Evers’ stay-at-home order.

If the state mask mandate is eliminated, local orders, such as those in Madison and Milwaukee, would remain in effect. Dane County’s local order requires everyone age 5 and older to wear a mask when indoors outside their own home, with some exceptions.

COVID relief

The Assembly on Thursday also passed the latest version of coronavirus relief legislation that has ping-ponged back and forth between both GOP-led chambers for a month. The Senate plans to take up the legislation at 11 a.m. Friday in extraordinary session to prevent the state from losing any federal COVID-19 aid and send it to Evers, who could veto the whole package for including measures the governor has described as “poison pills.”

Assembly Republicans also sent Evers a letter asking the Democratic governor to submit to the GOP-led Legislature limited mask rules that would apply to places such as schools, nursing homes and prisons.

But that proposal appeared unlikely even before the Assembly voted to strike down the emergency order, as Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who co-chairs the state’s joint rules committee that would take up such rules, said he does not support the Assembly Republicans’ suggestion to have Evers submit limited mask rules.

Nass, who co-authored the joint resolution to repeal the state emergency order and has criticized Vos for not acting sooner against Evers’ orders, said Thursday he plans to draft a new joint resolution to strike down the governor’s latest order and encouraged Senate leadership to consider filing for emergency action in the state Supreme Court.

“The rule of law and the Wisconsin Constitution require Evers to recognize the legislature ended his emergency powers,” Nass said in a statement. “Instead, Tony Evers now acts no differently than a dictator in control of a banana republic.”

Federal funding

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the Senate will meet in extraordinary session Friday to pass the COVID-19 relief bill and send it to the governor’s desk.

At one point the Senate approved legislation Evers said he would sign. However, Republicans have made multiple amendments to include measures the governor has opposed.

The Assembly hit pause on repealing Evers’ emergency order last week following reports that doing so could cut the state off from tens of millions of dollars in federal food assistance for low-income families, while also preventing the Democratic governor from issuing future coronavirus-related emergency orders.

Federal COVID-19 aid passed last year provides assistance to households participating in food assistance programs as long as the state has an existing emergency health order in place, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The state Department of Health Services estimated more than 242,000 Wisconsin households would receive more than $49 million in emergency benefits last month.

Evers said his latest emergency order prevents the state from losing federal assistance for low-income families, while Republicans say the latest amendments in the COVID-19 relief package also address the issue.

In addition, LeMahieu said passing the legislative package before Sunday prevents any lapse in federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits allocated to the state.

“This is a true consensus bill and we expect a quick signature to preserve the enhanced federal UI benefits which will expire Sunday without this law change,” LeMahieu said.

GOP requests rules

In a letter sent Thursday to Evers, 55 Assembly Republicans asked that the governor introduce rules to the Legislature that would enact “reasonable masking requirements in places in Wisconsin that are susceptible to transmission of the virus to those who are especially vulnerable.”

Republicans suggest mask requirements for health care facilities, nursing homes, mass transit, state government buildings, assisted-living facilities, public schools, universities and prisons.

Other requested rules include allowing any private or public entity to enact their own mask policy and requiring the state Department of Health Services to pay for COVID-19 tests using state funds.

Such a proposal would need to be reviewed by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, which is co-chaired by Nass.

Republicans also suggest that any rules passed would need to be reviewed every 30 days by the rules committee to identify any needed modifications. The rules would remain in place until a majority of eligible Wisconsin residents are voluntarily vaccinated, Republicans said.

However, Nass’ chief of staff Mike Mikalsen said the senator “doesn’t support the efforts of Assembly Republicans to join with Governor Evers to enact a mask mandate that could lead to people being fined and/or arrested.”

Fave 5: State government reporter Mitchell Schmidt shares his top stories of 2020

Choosing my five favorite stories of 2020 seems almost paradoxical.

This year has felt like one exhausting slog of pandemic stories, state Legislature updates and, oh yeah, a presidential election thrown in for good measure. Thanks to a split government, there's been no shortage of politically-charged stories here in Wisconsin and the partisan divide has, maybe unsurprisingly, felt as wide as ever throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don't know if "favorite" is the best way to describe them, but here are a few stories from 2020 that stood out to me:

Back in March, Gov. Tony Evers issued the state's first public health emergency in response to the then-emerging pandemic. At the time, Wisconsin had reported eight total cases of COVID-19.

As the pandemic progressed, positive cases and deaths climbed and state lawmakers battled over the appropriate response. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order, a decision that still resonates today with the state's coronavirus-related measures.

One story I was particularly excited about before I officially started working for the State Journal was the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. However, like most things this year, the pandemic drastically altered that plan.

In non-pandemic news, the state in October formally denied billions of dollars in state tax credits to Foxconn Technology Group — a story we managed to get before any other outlet in the state through records requests and sourcing.

Lastly, in November I worked on a story about how GOP-drawn legislative maps once again disproportionately benefited Republicans in state elections. Wisconsin is headed toward another legal battle next year when the next batch of 10-year maps are drawn.

Feel free to read my top stories below, or check out my other state government articles from this year, (by my count, there have been more than 300 so far).

Also, thanks to all the subscribers out there. This year has been challenging on so many people, so your support is so much appreciated.


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