Citing "unintended consequences" in a GOP effort to strike down Gov. Tony Evers' statewide COVID-19 emergency order and accompanying mask mandate that could still allow the governor to pass future orders, Republicans in the Assembly plan to amend the measure and send it back to the Senate for the third time.
An amendment would mark yet another delay to the state's COVID-19 relief package, which has ping-ponged between the GOP-led chambers for a month and could be heading for a veto as it includes several items Evers has opposed.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, said the hang-up stems from a memo from legislative attorneys that indicates that, under the Senate proposal, Evers would retain his ability to issue any order that the Democratic governor "deems necessary for the security of persons and property while a state of emergency is in effect."
"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.
Vos said Assembly Republicans plan to pass their own version of the joint resolution that still strikes down Evers' order, but also an amended version of the COVID-19 relief package. The Assembly plans to convene at 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 8, and Vos said the resolution and amended package could be taken up by the Senate when it meets again in mid-February.
Assembly Republicans last week paused a fast-tracked joint resolution passed by the Senate GOP to eliminate the Democratic governor's mask order after reports surfaced that doing so could cut the state off from more than $49 million in monthly federal food assistance for low-income families in January alone.
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 estimates that more than 242,000 Wisconsin households would receive such emergency benefits last month.
Following news that eliminating Evers' emergency order could put those federal funds in jeopardy, Republicans in the Senate passed an amended COVID-19 relief bill that would allow Evers to put in place future coronavirus emergency orders solely for the purpose of receiving federal funds, but ban the inclusion of other pandemic-related measures such as future mask mandates.
Senior Staff Attorney Steve McCarthy, with the Wisconsin Legislative Council, said in a Friday, Jan. 29, memo that the Senate amendment allows the state to collect emergency federal funds previously approved by Congress, but would not apply to any future relief packages.
However, state statute would still grant Evers the broad power to issue orders he deems necessary, McCarthy wrote.
"Therefore, without limiting language in the amendment, the governor would retain the authority under current statutes to issue any order the governor deems necessary for the security of persons and property while a state of emergency is in effect," McCarthy wrote.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who co-authored the joint resolution to repeal the state emergency order and the amendment passed by the Senate last week, issued a statement Wednesday criticizing Vos for not acting sooner. Nass has taken aim at Evers' emergency order and mask mandate since they first went into effect in August.
Evers has made multiple extensions to his emergency order and mask mandate, while the Legislature has refused to extend those orders. The Democratic governor and public health officials have touted the mask requirement as a pivotal step in mitigating transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
Republicans say the Legislature, not Evers, has the authority to initiate a mask mandate beyond the governor's 60-day limit, but so far have not proposed any such measure.
Nass said he and other Senate Republicans had warned Vos "that there would be potential consequences for failing to act immediately in August 2020."
"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," Nass said. "It is time to get this done and stop pretending that the delay in acting in 2020 didn't cause harm."
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