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Wisconsin Assembly OKs Republican COVID spending plan; Evers vows veto

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FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, left, and Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, right, look on as Gov. Tony Evers delivers his State of the State address at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison, Wis. Gov. Evers signed a bipartisan tax cut bill into law Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, and signaled support for another bipartisan measure to help update the state's unemployment insurance system, rare compromises that come as Republicans have roundly denounced much of his state budget proposal as a liberal wish list. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Assembly Republicans took another step Tuesday toward ripping control of billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, passing a package of bills that would divvy out the money according to GOP priorities.

The state is in line to receive $3.2 billion in federal stimulus money and, by law, the dollars will be at Evers’ disposal. But Republicans have been loudly demanding they should have a say in the spending, saying that would create more transparency and accountability.

“Instead of one person deciding how these taxpayer dollars should be spent, we really believe we should have a robust debate… and give the opportunity for the public to actually see where their dollars eventually will go,” Speaker Robin Vos told reporters.

The debate comes after the GOP-controlled state Legislature went nearly 10 months during the worst of the pandemic — from April 2020 to February 2021 — without passing a single piece of legislation or meeting in session to discuss anything — though it did gavel in and out of two special sessions in under 1 minute. Of the billions in spending, $626 million of this Republican package may not be allowed under federal law, while another large portion of that would have to be repaid.

The Assembly passed the bills in a marathon floor session that stretched from midday into the evening hours.

The legislation would specify how about $2.7 billion of the stimulus would be spent. The proposals include plans for a $1 billion property tax cut; $200 million for small businesses; $75 million for tourism grants; $150 million for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities; $308 million for local roads; $250 million to pay off transportation bonds; and $61 million for lead service line replacements and measures to control water pollution.

Other proposals in the package would send an unknown amount of money toward unemployment benefits and eliminate the state tax on sales at brew pubs, movie theaters, bars, restaurants, amusement parks and resorts from June 1 through Aug. 31.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has sounded some warning bells about the bills. That $626 million in spending on areas possibly not allowed under federal law, would include retiring the transportation bonds and local road work. The state also may have to repay the property tax cut and the money earmarked for unemployment, the bureau said.

Specific guidelines on how the federal money could be used haven’t been issued, though, leaving it unclear whether the GOP bills would be allowed, the bureau said.

Assembly Republicans passed a resolution later Tuesday ordering Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to join a multi-state lawsuit challenging provisions that forbid states from using the pandemic relief dollars to offset any reductions in state taxes. Kaul spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said Kaul wouldn’t join the lawsuit. The Legislature can authorize the attorney general to join a lawsuit but can’t require it, she said.

The sales tax holiday bill would cost the state about $159 million in lost revenue, according to the state Department of Revenue. The measure doesn’t explicitly call for using the federal money to cover the loss.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz complained to reporters that the bills are designed to score political points.

“Is anyone really going to go to Noah’s Ark because they don’t have a sales tax anymore?” Hintz said, referring to the popular Wisconsin Dells water park. “Today is purely about politics and not about reality.”

The bills appear doomed anyway. Evers has his own plans for the money and has signaled he’ll veto the package if it reaches his desk.

The governor wants to spend $600 million on small businesses, $50 million on tourism, $200 million on infrastructure and $500 million on pandemic response measures.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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