Wisconsin Republicans’ vindictive COVID proposals

New proposals from Robin Vos and company have little to do with getting us through the pandemic.

New proposals from Robin Vos and company have little to do with getting us through the pandemic.

To understand the proposals that Wisconsin Assembly Republicans unveiled this week amid a devastating spike in COVID-19 deaths and cases in the state, you don’t really need to understand the pandemic or public health. You just need to understand how the political right goes about building power and exploits crisis to do so. 

There are some good things in this package that Wisconsin could have done months ago if we didn’t have a party of corrupt, illegitimately empowered fascists holding our state’s political process hostage—things Republican legislators could have brought to the floor during their more than 200 days of lethal inaction. Things that would take very little debate or political maneuvering to do in a remotely moral society, like requiring health insurers to cover COVID testing without charging co-pays, and creating grants for the badly suffering hospitality industry. That’s what’s so infuriating about our current political moment: As complex as a pandemic is, we largely already know what to do—take care of people and give them money! 

In fact, Republican proposals have some provisions in common with those of a bill Governor Tony Evers put forward last month, which Republicans blithely dismissed. But this is still just the sugarcoating on a poison pill.

Read through Speaker Robin Vos’ bullet points and then the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s analysis. Or maybe just read Tamarine Cornelius’ excellent Twitter thread breaking down the proposals. Pretty soon your whole body will be resonating with several major themes of the spectacular pillage Republicans have carried out in Wisconsin over the past decade. 

It’s so beautifully emblematic of Democratic opposition, by the way, that Vos released these proposals a day after rolling out a smarmy bipartisan PSA with 2nd District Congressional Representative Mark Pocan. Apparently COVID isn’t left or right—but guess which side will get away with killing you? In the name of “reaching across the aisle,” Pocan is helping to rehabilitate Vos as a reasonable voice on COVID, rather than holding the speaker accountable for months of obstruction on the issue.

Anyways, on we go with those Republican themes:

  • Austerity. Yeah yeah, there is money in here, but with a big old asterisk, which I’ll get to shortly.

  • Chipping away at local control. One of the most significant and under-appreciated legacies of the Scott Walker years is a raft of state laws that restrict local governments’ ability to make policy on issues ranging from landlord-tenant relations to wages to environmental quality. Earlier in the pandemic, Vos claimed that he wanted local officials to take the lead on fighting COVID, because Robin Vos lies. Republicans’ COVID proposals nip away at the power of school boards and local governments, especially restricting local officials’ ability to impose capacity limits at businesses and churches.

  • Undermining public schools. Per the LFB analysis: “Require that, if a school board provides virtual instruction to a pupil in lieu of in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year, the board shall pay $371 to the parent or guardian of the pupil. Specify that this provision would also apply to schools that have virtual instruction for 50% of the semester.” Note that this doesn’t actually help school districts get resources to families or teachers to facilitate online learning. Instead it treats (admittedly stressed-out) parents around the state as if they, not teachers, are doing all the real work of distanced education. 

  • Antagonizing rank-and-file public employees, and especially teachers, with a contradictory and malicious brew of micro-management and neglect. Republican proposals would require teachers and state agency employees (though not UW System employees) to get back to work, in-person. Keep in mind that Wisconsinites technically employ a full-time legislature, but getting them into the Capitol has been quite the chore this year. “Get back to work” is Republican politicians’ answer for everything except themselves.

  • Turning the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance (known as the JFC and earning that nickname better by the day), which is already powerful, into a sort of shadow executive branch that gives Republicans the ability to do things unilaterally without delegating any power to the actual executive branch. We’ll break this down shortly!

  • Property taxes! Property taxes! Property taxes! The proposals would allow government entities that collect property taxes to waive late fees and interest charges. Which, OK, fine if you’re a struggling household that owes property taxes, but it doesn’t really help said households crawl out of the long-term hole that the pandemic has created for many Wisconsinites. That’s the problem with even the best or most reasonable provisions in the Republican proposal: They do so little to address the underlying horrors of the pandemic. 

  • Selfishness over the greater good. Are you a self-centered ogre who wants to opt out of any future COVID vaccine or keep going to in-person church services during a pandemic and you think this whole thing is overblown anyway? This bill protects your right to do so and I will see you in hell.

All of this fits together so neatly because Republicans don’t really have to adapt their politics to a horrific crisis. Rather, crisis is the medium in which they thrive. Republicans in this landscape of deprivation and preventable death are as happy as mushrooms on a nice damp rotting log.

The most deranged thing in this cynical package is that Republicans would require the JFC to sign off on the state’s plan for distributing a COVID vaccine. Now, there are good reasons for legislative oversight of such a plan, checks and balances and all, but the legislature already has a Senate Committee on Health and Human Services that could theoretically discuss a vaccination plan. What right or expertise does JFC have to exercise ultimate control over this, even assuming that vaccine distribution would cost a lot of money? 

The only answer that makes sense here is that Republicans want to give the JFC more power because that’s where they’ve already started building an alternative power base. Investing more power in JFC was a major theme of the 2018 lame-duck bills Republicans hastily passed after Evers won the gubernatorial election—legislation that has itself hampered the state’s pandemic response. And again, the new COVID proposals would allow people to opt out of any vaccine, and clearly enables people to participate in behavior that can spread the virus, so we’re already working at cross-purposes here. 

Yes, Republicans are calling for the creation of a $100 million fund for the state’s COVID response. The catch is that, as with the legislature’s previous COVID legislation, the JFC is actually in charge of those funds—not, say, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, local public health officials, or anyone else actually dealing with coronavirus on the ground. Provisions like this allow Republicans to claim that they put up the money to fight the pandemic, but also tie up its actual expenditure in potentially endless and petty political conflict. In fact, another provision calls for DHS to increase public health staff, but to seek federal funds first before asking the JFC for money. 

If the goal is to provide funding to fight the pandemic, why is there this strange gap in the bill between its funding mechanisms and its stated public-health goals? If there’s a point to allocating that money, and legislative Republicans are so eager to control and micromanage local and state government agencies anyway, why isn’t there a clear roadmap to actually spending that $100 million? Republicans would likely counter that it’s the fiscally responsible thing to seek out federal funding before spending the state’s own money. But this is the time to put up or shut up, and there’s no guarantee that there will be more federal money on the table, not now and not under a newly sworn-in Democratic President, and not with a Senate whose power balance hinges on two runoff elections in Georgia. 

The Assembly GOP has also touted its plans for “unemployment insurance reform,” the clearest possible signal that poor people are about to experience new depths of terror and misery. During the pandemic, the state’s Department of Workforce Development has failed miserably to process unemployment claims, and thousands of Wisconsinites have wasted hours trying to get help through an impregnable phone tree. GOP legislators have criticized the backlog—and sure, the Department itself and the Evers administration bears its share of the blame here. But the legislature has the power of the purse, and hasn’t provided adequate resources to break the logjam. Republicans’ long-held hatred for public benefits and their recipients helped to get us here too.

According to the LFB’s analysis, the Republican plan would require DWD to draw up more plans and provide more reports (fight red tape and paperwork with more red tape and paperwork), and it would give the JFC power to cut salaries for a few top DWD officials. This last measure is pure resentment-politics red meat. Allowing one legislative committee—and really, the Republican majority members of that committee—to slash pay for the department’s Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and unemployment administrator is great political theater for the grumbling rubes who just want to stick it to the bureaucrats (a not-insignificant part of the GOP base), but it does very little to help out people who are trying to sort out complicated unemployment paperwork, worrying about when their benefit payments will actually come through, or worrying about what will happen to their incomes if benefits run out before they’re able to find a new job. At best it’s a way for Republicans to drive out some of the current top people at DWD, only to pointlessly torment their successors.

If Republicans wanted to advance a package of COVID relief bills that wasn’t laced with predictable power grabs—like a cupcake studded with broken glass—they could easily do so. They’ve made a political choice to do things this way. It’s further evidence that the opposition needs a better, more strident strategy. At this point Republicans aren’t even bargaining with the opposition: They’re bargaining with a wounded public, hoping that we’ll eat the shit sandwich as long as it comes with at least a tiny measure of relief. To quote Wisconsin’s own Amos Pitsch: We’re begging for water, they’re giving us sand.

Republicans are hoping that if Democratic opposition scuttles these bills, Democrats will then absorb voters’ ire for the crisis getting worse. They’re hoping to fuel the resentment-based political cycle that always serves them well, when frustrated and alienated people turn on each other rather than on the actual powers that be. Please don’t fall for it.

Republicans don’t have a veto-proof legislative majority now, and they won’t when the new term begins in January. The only way these proposals succeed is if Evers and legislative Democrats capitulate. Wisconsinites shouldn’t stand for that either.

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