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Wisconsin Republicans Vote To Control COVID Money, Assembly Passes Bills Prohibiting Vaccine Requirements

Wisconsin State Capitol
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The debate over a variety of COVID-19 measures showed the deep divisions between Wisconsin lawmakers.

The Wisconsin Legislature voted Tuesday to take control of the state's share of the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package away Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and instead give lawmakers the ability to decide how to spend the estimated $3.2 billion coming to the state.

The GOP-controlled Assembly also passed bills that would prohibit the government and employers from requiring people to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Churches could not be closed due to the pandemic under another bill passed by the Assembly.

The debate over a variety of COVID-19 measures showed the deep divisions between lawmakers, with some Republicans questioning the need to be vaccinated while Democrats urged caution in moving too quickly in thinking the pandemic was over.

“The intent behind them seems to be pandering toward the same kind of anti-science, anti-public health position that’s out there at the worst time possible," said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, at a news conference before debate began.

Evers will veto the measure giving the Legislature power over how the federal money is spent, his spokeswoman said earlier this month. Evers was likely to veto the others as well.

The governor has the power under current law to control how Wisconsin's $3.2 billion share of the federal relief bill will be spent. An additional $2.5 billion is coming to counties and municipalities.

Both the Senate and Assembly passed the bill giving the Legislature a role in approving the spending of the money on party line votes. The bill would require the governor to submit a plan for spending the money to the Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee for approval.

Republicans argued the Legislature should play a role in how it's spent, just like it did in 2009 when approving how money from the federal stimulus during the Great Recession was spent.

“Unfortunately, it seems like the Democrats want to have a piggy bank where they can choose to give the money with no oversight, no transparency, no ability to judge whether it’s the best decision until after the money is out the door," Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said.

If Evers doesn’t sign the bill, Vos said, “We will have no choice but to go to court.”

Evers and other Democrats say giving the Legislature control over the funding would only slow it from helping those in need.

The Assembly passed bills that would prohibit both employers and state and local health officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations. Both bills must pass the Senate, which already approved a similar version of the one barring health officials from ordering vaccinations, before the measures go to Evers.

The bill prohibiting government officials from requiring the vaccine passed on a 60-33 vote, with Democratic Reps. Nick Milroy and Sylvia Ortiz-Velez joining all Republicans in support. The other bill that bars employers from mandating the vaccine passed 59-35, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against.

Current law allows state health officials to require vaccinations during a public health emergency, but people can opt out for religious or conscience reasons. It also can't be required under certain medical circumstances.

Vaccinations are not currently mandated by any state or local health agencies in Wisconsin. As of Monday more than 25% of people 16 and older had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 15% were fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Vos, in arguing for not mandating vaccines, said the “coercive power of the government” should not be used to force people to be vaccinated. Everyone should do their own research and make up their own minds about whether to get it, he said. Vos said he planned to be vaccinated and believed a vast majority of the public would also.

Doctors, public health officials, business leaders and others have all come out against the bills barring the ordering of vaccinations. Supporters include the anti-abortion groups Wisconsin Family Action and Pro-Life Wisconsin as well as the anti-vaccination group Vaccine Choice Wisconsin.

The bill barring the closure of churches during a pandemic passed 61-33 with Democratic Reps. Ortiz-Velez and Shelia Stubbs joining all Republicans in support. The Senate previously approved an earlier version of the bill but will have to sign off again on the latest one before it goes to Evers.

The Assembly also gave final passage to a bill on a 60-35 vote requiring the governor to submit a plan for when all state employees will be back doing their jobs in offices, rather than from home. Republicans questioned whether state employees were truly working when at home and said at the very least Evers should have a plan for their return.

Democratic Rep. Kristina Shelton broke ranks and joined all Republicans in voting for the bill.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.

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