UW-Madison. (Shutterstock)
UW-Madison. (Shutterstock)

Any restrictions will first need approval from Republican lawmakers, who are certain to reject the rules.

Republicans on the joint legislative committee in charge of overseeing administrative rules voted Tuesday by remote ballot to curb the UW Systems’ ability to implement measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus. 

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who co-chairs the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR), proposed a rule that would require the UW System to submit any COVID-related restrictions to the committee 30 days before implementation. JCRAR would have the power to postpone or block said restrictions. 

Votes were due by 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. Shortly after, Nass announced that the rule had passed 6-4. 

“Today the Legislature through JCRAR has told the UW System they can no longer ignore state law with regards COVID-19 mandates impacting students and campus visitors,” Nass stated in the press release. “Government issued COVID-19 mandates and lockdowns have failed miserably in dealing with this virus. The path forward in addressing COVID-19 is not through excessive government mandates, but in the restoration of Americans being able to make voluntary informed decisions based on their individual health circumstances.”

Gov. Tony Evers does not have veto power over the committee’s decisions. Previous governors had that power, but Republicans changed the law during the lame-duck session between Evers’ election in 2018 and when he took office. 

Despite evidence that Safer at Home and other policies did slow the spread of COVID-19 before conservative courts killed them, and rising infection rates with the Delta variant, UW Systems will be unable to implement testing, vaccine, or masking requirements.

“This action is a clear overreach,” Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) who also serves on the committee, said in a statement. “It’s a cynical attempt to insert politics into public health because Senator Nass, Representative [Adam] Neylon (R-Pewaukee), and legislative Republicans can’t seem to work with anyone, even former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. The more this virus spreads, the more danger our citizens are in—especially children, the immunocompromised, and others who cannot be vaccinated—as more dangerous variants develop.”

RELATED: From LGBTQ ‘Conversion Therapy’ to Protecting Polluters, GOP Uses a Rules Committee to Bypass Lawmaking

Thompson, the current UW System president, opposed the rule when it was first proposed, but he was not vocal beyond his initial statement.

“I know the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully used to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Thompson said last week.

The Loophole

As if the process weren’t abnormal enough, JCRAR voted on the  rule remotely, without a hearing or debate. Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), who is on the committee, said it’s a continuation of a trend where Wisconsin Republicans are “trying to cut the public out of our democracy.”

“There is no public hearing, there is no opportunity for public input, and in this case, not even an opportunity for debate,” Larson said. “It’s another attempt to try and slide one over past the people and skip the whole democracy thing.”

“This is another example of the GOP’s abuse of the administrative review process and their retreat from open government,” Roys said. “Legislators should deliberate and the public should be heard in important matters. Legislation that has the potential to harm our entire state needs public input.

Larson spoke out during a JCRAR hearing in December, in which Republican members of the committee killed implementation of a bipartisan bill to regulate the release of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into Wisconsin’s waterways. 

The posting for the hearing had said only invited speakers would be permitted, and other than a representative from the Department of Natural Resources, the only invited speakers were industry advocates. Nass said that anyone could have called his office and been permitted to speak, but Larson pointed out that lobbyists may have known that, but the general public didn’t. 

Through the rulemaking process, legislative Republicans have put forward proposals that would allow licensed therapists to continue the controversial practice of LGBTQ conversion therapy, discriminate against potential patients on the basis of gender identity and race, and restrict COVID-19 aid for public employees and renters. Those proposals were forwarded to the Assembly Committee on State Affairs, where no action was taken.

But the committee’s successful blocking of COVID-19 safety precautions and PFAS regulations is an example of how dangerously powerful it can be.

“It is literally the simplest thing to say, ‘You know what? Let’s make sure folks are being safe here.’ It is embarrassing for our state that they’ve decided this is in their best interest,” Larson said. “There’s a lot of money to be made by letting people get sick, get hurt, and die.”