Political grandstanding? Legislative Russian roulette? A grand waste of time?
At the very least it appears to be a case of putting the cart before the horse.
We’re talking about the state Legislature introducing bills that, if adopted, would dictate how to spend nearly $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding. The problem is the legislation was written before it was clear how federal rules would dictate how the money can be spent. And, according to the state’s own Legislative Fiscal Bureau, spending the funds outside the dictates of their purpose could result in the state having to return the money.
Not that it would get that far. According to an April 7 report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a spokesman for Gov. Tony Evers indicated a veto of the legislation was likely. In fact, it is the governor who will control the funds anyway.
The warning about potential consequences came from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which provides fiscal and program information and analyses to the Legislature, its committees and individual legislators. It also serves as staff to the Joint Committee on Finance — a 16-member Committee which reviews and deliberates on legislation affecting state revenues and appropriations.
According to the Journal Sentinel report, the fiscal bureau told legislators that they may not be able to use the federal funding to pay off $500 million in state debt. They also may not be able to spend $310 million to shore up the state’s unemployment fund, $308.5 million for roads and $68.2 million to upgrade communications equipment and establish a mental health crisis center in northern Wisconsin.
Republican leaders in the Legislature also want to use part of the federal allocation, $1.1 billion, for one of their stalwart rallying platforms — property tax relief.
We’re not pooh-poohing any of those proposals; we’re just asking why didn’t the Legislature wait to see what they could do and then sit down with the governor and present their ideas to the governor’s administration?
The fiscal bureau did indicate that part of the GOP-drawn legislation does appear to dovetail with federal law. And that part, amounting to $1 billion in expenditures, does address several worthy projects and initiatives: Funding for broadband, small businesses, long-term care facilities, tourism, lead pipe replacement and environmental efforts, and for rural economic development.
By now you would have had to be living in Antarctica, disconnected from the rest of the world, to know that Wisconsin is politically divided and that the Republican legislative majority and Democratic governor don’t — to put it mildly — see eye to eye.
But many in this state are hungry for efforts at compromise. And these funds, dispersed by the feds to help shore up the state after the tsunami that has been the pandemic, provide an excellent channel for that to happen.
Instead of political theater, the Legislature and administration need to sit down and jointly a develop a plan for the allocation. But only after the rules on how the funds are to be used are made crystal clear.