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Wisconsin lawmakers float partisan extortion scheme by holding COVID-19 relief funds hostage

Republican legislative leaders in Wisconsin are holding millions of dollars in federal Medicaid and unemployment benefits hostage, as they try to force Governor Tony Evers to cede some of his powers to the Republican-controlled legislature.

Recognizing the high costs of fighting the coronavirus, the Federal government made additional Medicaid funding available to states. In Wisconsin, the 2018 lame duck law blocks Governor Evers from taking steps to accept this aid money without getting approval from the state legislature.

Also, the Federal government is newly offering to pay 100% of the cost of the first week of unemployment benefits for state residents. Currently, Wisconsin does not allow people to get benefits for the first week of unemployment, so both the Governor and the Legislature would have to sign off on the change to get the additional funding.

Governor Evers released an economic package that would gather both the additional Federal Medicaid dollars and the extra unemployment benefits. Republican legislative leaders ignored his proposal and released their own plan.

The alternative proposal included capturing both those sources of extra dollars, but also included a provision that would give the legislature’s budget committee – controlled by Republicans through a decade of gerrymandering election maps – unilateral power to make budget cuts during this crisis, without the approval of other legislators or the Governor.

The bill proposed by the state Republicans does not appropriate money. That means the Governor must accept or reject the Republican bill in its entirety, as he has line-item veto power only for appropriation bills.

In other words, the Republican bill makes accepting the Federal resources contingent on the Governor giving more power to the Republican-controlled legislature.

Nearly all other states have qualified for additional federal Medicaid funding to fight the pandemic, typically through executive action. But in WI, the lame duck law blocks Gov Evers from making the needed changes to qualify for the funding, which is about $50 million/month.

The lame duck law was passed by the legislature and signed by then-Gov Walker after Evers won the election but before he took office. The law limits the gov’s power, which is something R legislative leaders coincidentally decided was necessary right as a D gov came into office.

One of the conditions of receiving additional fed Medicaid funding is that states cannot increase premiums or make other changes that suppress enrollment. WI would have to suspend some changes that took place in Feb in order to qualify for the additional funding.

But under the lame duck law, making those changes requires the approval of the full legislature. Which has no solid plans to meet. Did I mention the deadline for eligibility is April 16? Failing to qualify could cost Wisconsin about $50 M/month while the emergency is in effect.

– Tamarine Cornelius @Tamarine608

This cynical ploy threatens to block desperately-needed resources for Wisconsin residents harmed by the pandemic.

Wisconsin should put those federal resources to use helping sick people and making sure that residents who have lost their jobs can still hold their body and soul together. Instead, Republican legislative leaders have turned those resources into a bargaining chip in their quest to expand their authoritarian power in Wisconsin.

Tamarine Cornelius

Coburn Dukehart

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following months, we have published more than 375 articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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About The Author

Tamarine Cornelius

Tamarine Cornelius is one of two analysts at the Wisconsin Budget Project. She works to show how budget decisions affect every individual and family in Wisconsin, and advocates for smart public investments that will boost the state's economy.