Wisconsin lawmakers delay vote on relief legislation, resolution overturning mask mandate

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin state assembly has delayed a vote on a resolution that would overturn the public health emergency and, by extension, the mask mandate. The delayed vote comes after the Assembly was scheduled to take up the resolution Thursday morning, after the legislature learned on Wednesday that the resolution would make the state ineligible for additional federal food stamp benefits.

The Senate approved the resolution earlier this week on an 18-to-13 vote, with all Democrats and two Republicans–Sen. Dale Kooyenga and Sen. Robert Cowles–voting against throwing out the mandate.

Vos’s announcement follows a senate session Thursday afternoon that added an amendment to existing Covid-19 relief legislation before the house. The amendment would allow Governor Evers to declare a limited public health emergency only for the purposes of receiving federal funding for emergency orders. Vos told reporters he wanted to be sure first that the proposed amendment would fix the issue, however, and that the Assembly wanted to review ‘new information’ before moving forward.

“We are going to take time and work with the fiscal bureau and the legislature and all of the appropriate agencies to guarantee that when we pass SJR3–and we will pass it–that we do it in a way that does not have any potential financial implications for the state,” Vos told reporters. The senate, he said, had not taken the appropriate due diligence when they passed it earlier in the week.

After the Senate passed the resolution on Tuesday, the legislature learned that their resolution to kill the state’s public health emergency order–and by extension the mask mandate–would expose the state to losing out on almost $50 million in monthly federal benefits for the FoodShare program, as first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In an unusual show of formal opposition, the resolution has garnered the public opposition of essentially every major health care organization in the state, and a growing number of education, religious, family, administrative, and other lobbyist organizations as well. Since Tuesday morning, the number of organizations opposing the resolution has risen to forty-two, with none in favor.

“As an emergency physician, we know and believe that mask wearing as aggressively as possible by the general public is an important health tool to start to end this pandemic,” said Dr. Bradley Burmeister, President of the Wisconsin chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians — one of the organizations that opposes the resolution.

“I’m sympathetic and I understand the question of the Governor’s authority, and I would just ask [Speaker Robin Vos] to consider having a mask mandate that’s approved by the legislature using the approved mechanism that they’re questioning.”

Since Tuesday, the list of lobbying organizations opposing the bill has expanded to include education and business interests like the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Milwaukee Public Schools, and the Wisconsin Education Association Council. The resolution would likely also cut off almost $50 million in SNAP benefits monthly to low-income individuals based on federal COVID relief legislation last year that passed additional food stamp funding for states who have an emergency order in place.

“This resolution will result in fewer people wearing masks than they are now. Fewer people wearing masks means more infections, more hospitalizations, and more people dying of COVID-19,” Assembly minority leader Rep. Gordon Hintz said in a statement.

The resolution is based on Republicans’ arguments that the Legislature never gave the governor the authority to extend the public health emergency order beyond 60 days; the legislature has the power to extend emergency resolutions but has not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republicans claim the resolution is less about getting rid of the mask requirement and more about making sure the governor can’t unilaterally declare an infinite amount of successive emergency orders for the same emergency. Democrats say the resolution is political and aimed at continuing to limit the governor’s power.

While the resolution would throw out the statewide order, local health departments — including Dane County’s — are still permitted to impose their own mask mandates. Earlier this week, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi reminded people his county’s order still stands.

Covid-19 relief legislation

Speaker Vos indicated in a virtual luncheon Thursday afternoon that the Assembly would likely take up the Covid-19 relief bill next week. But the amendment added to that law fixing the food stamps federal funding is attached to legislation unlikely to make it passed the governor’s desk. State representatives added amendments to prevent employers from requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, a measure currently allowed under state law but rarely utilized so far in the pandemic.

Attaching the federal funding fix to a bill that already was amended outside of the compromise between the senate and the governor means Wisconsin is likely to be without both a mask mandate, Covid-19 relief legislation, and federal funding–very soon.

“Now if the governor were to veto this legislation, he would kill $49 million dollars,” Sen. Nass said during the floor session on Thursday. The political maneuver follows earlier agreement between the state senate and the Governor’s office on relief legislation both parties compromised on, before the Assembly added amendments that would expose the law to a veto.

Democrat senators expressed surprise and disappointment at the lack of debate on the bill, after a voice vote coming minutes after the amendment was introduced.

“We deserve time to adequately review documents,” Sen. Lena Taylor from Milwaukee said. “It was brought up today that you moved this so fast, you’ve been so away from transparency and inclusion, that you missed that we could miss $49 million. And then you have the audacity, Mr President, Senator from the 11th, to say “It’s the governor’s fault if we lose money because of choices that you want to put in place.'”

The legislature has not passed COVID-19 relief legislation since last April. Thursday, the Assembly also passed two bills that would allow pharmacy technicians to administer COVID-19 vaccines, as well as require the DHS to develop a plan to start vaccinating the general public by March 15.