Assembly Republicans set to pass bills to control federal relief funds; may violate federal requirements

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly will vote on plans Tuesday to direct the spending for about $3.2 billion federal COVID relief funds–bills that Gov. Evers will likely veto, and several of which would likely either violate federal law or require repayment from the state.

Republicans want to direct $1 billion in funding to direct payments to property owners. The direct payments would amount to 10% of their most recent tax bills; they wouldn’t include renters.

Across the state, single homeowners could get a few hundred dollars in pocket through the proposal. For the average assessed home in a high cost of living area like Madison, 2020 property tax bills amount to just over $7,000; a 10% direct payment would amount to about $700.

Landlords stand to get much more, however. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, himself a landlord, said that could result in indirect benefits for renters.

“If somebody gets part of the property tax back, that probably means they’re not gonna raise rent,” Vos said in a press conference Tuesday. “Probably means they’re going to be able to help folks.”

He couldn’t speak to how many lawmakers might profit from the bill. His own statements of economic impact for 2020 list him as an owner for 27 properties, in addition to his main residence. He has ownership interest in several businesses, including Ladwig & Vos, which owns a number of apartments in Whitewater. Based on 2020 property tax statements for all 28 properties Vos is listed as an owner for in his financial disclosure statement, a 10% direct payment would amount to about $11,978.

Other bills would direct millions into tourism and small business grants, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and the state’s unemployment insurance fund. Measures also include funding for local highways and bridges, broadband expansion grants, and retirement of some state debt.

A review from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau found that some of the bills may not be allowed under federal law, such as state debt repayments and funding for highways and bridges. For others, if the state were to follow through on the GOP plans like direct payments to property owners, as much as two-thirds of the relief funds might have to be repaid to the federal government.

The governor has already vetoed a bill that would have given the legislature more oversight over how to spend the COVID federal relief funds, and is likely to veto all or most of the measures controlling the American Rescue Plan funds. Currently, state law puts control over the funds in the governor’s office. He has indicated his plans to direct the money towards businesses, broadband and infrastructure, as well as the state’s COVID response like vaccination and testing.

While Republicans argue that federal fund oversight should be a shared tax between the legislature and executive office, Democratic lawmakers maintain that the power for spending the money should remain in the governor’s hands.

“Gov. Evers has the authority to invest these dollars, even if legislative Republicans don’t like it,” Democratic representative Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) said in a press conference Tuesday.

President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan sent about $5.7 billion in total to Wisconsin, with about $2.5 billion allocated for local governments and the remainder set for the state.

Meanwhile, state leaders have not indicated there is a plan in motion to recover $50 million in lost federal FoodShare expansion money for seniors and low income families. Those cuts are set to take effect in May.