Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, addresses Assembly members in January, 2020.
(Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, addresses Assembly members in January, 2020. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

Republican legislators pause efforts to kill face mask safeguards. A bill  likely to be vetoed by Gov. Evers is on hold, too.

When the legislative session got underway Thursday, most were expecting the statewide mask order—and its accompanying emergency declaration—to be lifted and the COVID-19 “compromise bill” to be passed and sent to Gov. Tony Evers.

Neither of those things happened. 

Instead, the Senate and Assembly were sent a curveball late Wednesday when news broke that repealing the mask order would cost Wisconsin roughly $50 million monthly in federal emergency FoodShare benefits. 

Those extra benefits are the result of coronavirus legislation passed by Congress last year that stipulates the funds are tied to an emergency declaration related to the coronavirus pandemic. Killing the emergency declaration containing the face mask safeguards would kill the extra federal dollars.

The story, first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, caused the Senate to quickly draft and attach an amendment to the COVID-19 bill that only would allow the governor to pass an emergency declaration if it was being done solely to secure FoodShare benefits. The face mask safeguard would still be struck down.

“This repeal vote is not just about masks, it’s about feeding our neighbors,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force, in a statement Wednesday that detailed the impact the mask order repeal would have on federal food funds sent to Wisconsin. 

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) authored the amendment. Nass is also one of two lawmakers who introduced the joint resolution to repeal the mask order. 

The addition of the amendment prompted Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) to put the brakes on holding a vote on the resolution to repeal the mask order as well as a vote on the amended COVID bill.  

Vos told reporters at the Capitol following the Senate’s move that “unfortunately” his Senate colleagues “didn’t necessarily do the same due diligence” as his chamber is planning to do prior to holding a vote. 

“When we pass it —and we will pass it—we will pass it in a way that doesn’t have any financial implications for the state,” Vos told reporters.

He added the amended COVID bill will likely be voted on next week in the Assembly. 

That bill, passed by the Senate Thursday, not only includes Nass’ amendment but three previous provisions that Evers and Senate Republican leaders had agreed should not be included in the compromise bill. 

They include: eliminating mandatory vaccinations at places of employment, capacity limits, and the ability to keep places of worship closed due to the pandemic. Vos put these three “poison pills” back into the bill—effectively killing the compromise between Evers and the Senate, and the Assembly approved them Tuesday.   

Nass said his amendment will still allow the GOP-controlled Legislature to repeal the mask order, while preserving the ability of the state to draw down federal funds. Nass claimed if Evers vetoes the COVID bill at this point, the loss of federal FoodShare money would be on the governor’s shoulders. 

Conversely, Republicans could leave things as they are—preserving the governor’s ability to pass emergency orders, keeping the current mask order in place, and completely ending any chance of the state losing the funds. 

More than 40 organizations representing healthcare, education, and the elder and disabled have registered in opposition to the Republican’s proposal to repeal the mask order. No entity has registered in favor of what the Republicans were planning to do on Thursday. 

“Now, if the governor were to veto this legislation he would be the one killing $49 million and all the other money that we have coming into the state under the Covid declaration that the federal government has required us to have in place,” Nass said on the Senate floor. 

Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) both expressed doubts that Evers would sign the amended COVID-19 bill. 

“The people of Wisconsin are going to get nothing,” Bewley said during the Senate debate. “We have no reason to believe this bill is going to see the light of day. It won’t.”

The Legislature has not passed a bill to address any aspect of the coronavirus pandemic since mid-April, nearly 290 days ago. As of Thursday, more than 5,811 Wisconsin residents have died due to the coronavirus and more than 538,300 have been infected with the virus, according to the state Department of Health Services

Federal FoodShare funds are tied to emergency health orders because of a COVID-19 relief package passed last year by Congress. When Wisconsin’s first public health emergency was ended by the state Supreme Court in May 2020 after Republicans sued Evers, the emergency FoodShare benefits were no longer available to Wisconsin residents. 

As a result, federal monthly FoodShare payments dropped to $80 million. When Evers issued another emergency healthcare order on July 30, the state’s FoodShare allocated doubled to $160 million. Most seniors—who are the state’s largest population receiving the food benefits—saw their monthly allocation jump from $16 to $204 each month.