Lawmakers To Vote On Blocking Vaccine Mandates, More Control Over Federal COVID-19 Funds

State lawmakers are set to vote Tuesday on Republican proposals that would bar health officials and employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, require state workers to return to in-person work and give the GOP-controlled Legislature more power over how federal COVID-19 stimulus funds are spent in Wisconsin. All of the measures could face vetoes from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.  

Under one vaccination bill, state and local health officers would not be allowed to require the public to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. A second bill would bar employers from requiring their workers to receive vaccinations. 

According to a memo from the Legislature’s nonpartisan legal office, current law would allow for government officials to issue vaccination mandates. No such orders have been issued in Wisconsin. Another memo says employers could require employees to get vaccinated, under certain circumstances, but those are likely limited now because the current COVID-19 vaccines have only received emergency use authorization from the federal government.

Supporters of the bills, including Sen. Andre Jacque, R-DePere, argue it’s unethical to require people who oppose or are concerned about vaccine safety to receive the shots. 

“It is critical to protect individual freedom in medical decisions — government coercion in relation to vaccines will do nothing to protect the public trust and assure citizens that their rights are being protected,” Jacque said in prepared testimony to lawmakers earlier this month. 

The bill limiting government vaccination mandates passed the Senate in February. If approved, it will move to Evers’ desk for his signature. The bill blocking employer requirements has yet to be voted on in the Senate. 

The proposal to move state employees back to in-person work would require Evers to submit a plan to the Legislature setting a timeline for the return. 

Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, one of the bill’s sponsors, has argued some private sector employees have already returned to in-person work, so state employees should as well. 

“At a time when government needs to collaborate in order to address the issues facing our state, our state’s public servants should be exhibiting every due diligence required of them on behalf of the people of our state,” she said in prepared testimony earlier this month. 

The bill passed the Senate last month. If approved, it will move to Evers’ desk. 

Another pandemic-related plan up for an Assembly vote on Tuesday would prohibit local health officials from closing or limiting gatherings in places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill has already passed the Senate.

Federal COVID-19 Funds

Both the Assembly and the Senate are also poised to pass a bill Tuesday that would give the Legislature more control over spending Wisconsin’s share of the recently-approved $1.9 billion federal relief package, although the vote could end up being largely symbolic.

The new law set aside $350 billion for state and local governments. According to a summary by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Wisconsin state government is expected to receive roughly $3.2 billion.

As it stands now, Gov. Tony Evers will have oversight of that funding, letting him bypass the Republican-controlled Legislature.

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The bill up for a vote Tuesday would change that. It would give the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, where Republicans hold a 12-4 majority, the power to block decisions on federal funding “that relate to COVID-19 activities” between the date the plan becomes law and June 30, 2022.

Evers’ spokesperson has already confirmed that the governor will veto the plan, and while Republicans have big majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, they’re not big enough to override a veto without Democratic help.

Wisconsin received about $2 billion in the first federal coronavirus aid bill, also known as the CARES Act, last spring. The state received more than $1 billion more under the second federal COVID-19 aid bill, which was approved in December. 

With rare exemption, Evers’ administration has had the power to disburse those funds. According to the state Department of Administration, about $2 billion has already been spent on things such as personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, testing lab supplies, contact tracing, rental assistance and grants to small businesses, farmers and childcare providers.

Elections Oversight

Assembly lawmakers are also set to vote on a resolution directing the chamber’s elections committee to investigate the administration of elections in Wisconsin, focusing specifically on elections since 2019. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, first called for an investigation of the 2020 presidential election last fall. Assembly lawmakers have already held hearings on election administration this year, taking testimony primarily from GOP lawyers and activists and most recently airing concerns about election grants funded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Democrats have pushed back on the calls for further investigation of the election, saying they perpetuate false claims about fraud. 

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.