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Thompson Won't Give Lawmakers Control Of UW's COVID Policies

 Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson
Scott Olson
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Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson speaks to workers and guests before a tour of the Reed Switch Developments Corp. manufacturing facility on Oct. 5, 2012 in Racine.

Updated 1:34 p.m. CT

University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson pushed back Tuesday against Republican lawmakers who claim campuses need their permission to implement COVID-19 policies, insisting university leaders don't need legislative approval to manage the system — a major break from his party's stance against pandemic protocols.

Thompson, a former GOP governor who served as health secretary under President George W. Bush, said he would not cede control of the system to fellow Republicans who run the Legislature.

“I'm not going to be intimidated," he told reporters during a briefing. “Even though I don't want to pick a fight with the Legislature, I'm going to stand my ground. I've kept politics out of (running the system) and everyone agrees with that. I'm still a strong Republican. I just put my Republican bonafides aside when I run the university. I've got the right and the authority and the responsibility to do what's necessary to keep the universities open.”

Thompson has called for system campuses to hold at least 75% of their classes in-person this fall. The schools have implemented a range of protocols over the last few weeks designed to meet that goal as the delta variant surges across the state, including mask and testing mandates.

The system hasn't mandated vaccinations. Thompson instead has created incentives for shots such as tuition remission. He said Tuesday, though, that he may have to "do an audible at the line” if infections keep climbing.

Regardless, the protocols the system has implemented so far have angered Republican lawmakers who see them as excessive restrictions on individual liberties.

The Legislature's GOP-controlled rules committee voted Aug. 3 to block the system from implementing any COVID-19 protocols without the committee's permission. The committee's co-chairman, Sen. Steve Nass, a longtime UW critic, has signaled lawmakers may sue if the system doesn't work with the panel.

Thompson said he's confident state law and administrative rules give system administrators the sole authority to set campus policies and legislators have no grounds to manage system affairs.

“We have complete authority to regulate, control, supervise and maintain the structures on our campus and at the same time provide for the safety and welfare of our faculty, employees and our great students,” Thompson said.

Nass issued a statement saying it's sad that Thompson believes in “big government control over the rights of individuals to make their own health-related decisions.” He said he thinks Thompson is trying to preserve the ability to mandate vaccinations.

He warned that if system administrators don't submit their mask and testing mandates to the committee for approval by Sept. 2 he'll ask Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu to file a lawsuit. Aides for both lawmakers didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

If Republicans choose to sue they would presumably seek a ruling from Wisconsin's conservative-leaning state Supreme Court, which has already erased Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' statewide mask mandate and limits on indoor gatherings. But Thompson said Tuesday he's sure he'd prevail in front of the high court.

“I think the Legislature would make a big mistake suing us,” he said. “I think they're going to lose and as a result some of their power will go away. If in fact (the court finds) a way to rule against the university, how the hell would you run it? The university could not function with the Legislature overruling all decisions by the president, the Board of Regents, the chancellors. It would be an absolute mess.”

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