(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

Wisconsin planning now for stimulus aid that may be weeks away

Gov. Tony Evers is in frequent discussions with top officials from three neighboring states in an attempt to bolster Wisconsin’s collective purchasing power for items – including ventilators and masks – that are in scarce supply due to the high-demand from the coronavirus health crisis.

Evers is in talks with the governors and their top staff in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota on a “regular basis” after hearing from other states already hit hard by the coronavirus that larger orders are given priority, said Melissa Baldauff, Evers’ deputy chief of staff.

Baldauff said the state will work collectively to bid on masks and ventilators from private companies and the federal government.

“This is a global pandemic. There is a shortage and everyone is fighting to get the same masks, the same gloves, all the same much-needed supplies for their workers,” said Baldauff. “Anything we can do to get those supplies as quickly as we can is what we are trying to do.”

Specifically, the state of Wisconsin needs 10,000 ventilators and 1 million N95 respirator masks, Baldauff said. The coronavirus attacks the respiratory system, meaning it spreads through airborne particles when individuals cough and sneeze. 

Healthcare workers need the sturdier N95 masks when treating COVID-19 patients to cover their mouths and noses. The most acute COVID-19 patients, which health care officials estimate will be roughly 10 percent of those infected, will need to be placed on a ventilator to help them breathe. 

Currently, Wisconsin has 1,215 of the crucial life-saving machines, Andrea Palm, the secretary of the state Department of Health Services said Monday.

Last Friday afternoon, the federal $2.2 trillion package was signed by President Trump. According to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin could receive about $2.26 billion,  with roughly $1.9 billion going directly to the state government. 

The remainder of the federal funds would be dispersed to local governments with populations greater than a half-million people. That means the city of Milwaukee would receive $102.7 million, Milwaukee County would receive $164.5 million and Dane County would receive $93.4 million.

Baldauff said it could be a month or more before Wisconsin’s share arrives. Until the money arrives, Baldauff said the state will find pockets of money “where it can” to make the ventilator and PPE purchases.

Friday was the final regularly scheduled day of the legislative session, and while lawmakers had been given a draft bill by the governor requesting roughly $700 million at the beginning of last week, they did not act on it. The 65-page document called for $17 million to support efforts by the state Department of Health services.

This includes roughly $500,000 to “enter into contracts, conduct investigations, facilitate research and purchase products,” among a host of other things. 

Rather than debate any components of the bill, lawmakers exchanged a flurry of emails over the weekend, with top Republicans saying Evers did not need them to pass legislation to make any supply purchases. 

The story, first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said the Legislative Fiscal Bureau had determined the state can buy equipment using existing federal dollars in department coffers due to a long-standing statute that gives governors wide latitude in how federal money is spent, according to the article. 

In a letter to Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, question why the governor is requesting additional money when the state is set to receive $2.2 billion in federal dollars.

“Despite this fact, you are still asking us to appropriate a blank check for over $500 million to allow you to

make these purchases. Why can’t we use federal funds to allow our own resources to be invested where

federal dollars aren’t planned to be utilized?” read the letter sent Saturday to Evers.  

“While we wish circumstances were different so oversight was required, these new federal dollars do not appear to require any legislative oversight whatsoever. They are completely at the disposal of your administration to spend on a wide variety of items including ventilators, masks and PPE”

Vos and Fitgerald added,  “again, we implore you. Please do not wait any longer to buy ventilators and masks. Do it now.”

Baldauff said it will slow down the state’s purchasing speed to repeatedly have to return to the legislature if it needs additional funds to purchase ventilators and masks, which is why they included funding in the legislation. 

“This is an emergency situation,” Baldauff said Monday. “We will take money wherever we can find it.”

She said the state will start using federal funds that currently exist in other department budgets to purchase supplies until federal money arrives. 

To date, the state has received roughly 104,680 N95 respirator masks, 260,840 surgical masks, 48,170 face shields, 40,512 surgical gowns, 192 coveralls and 70,375 pairs of gloves from the Strategic National Stockpile. 

The state also launched the personal protective equipment donation and buyback website last week and has requested additional supplies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.