Legislature pauses repealing mask mandate after potential loss of food assistance funding

By Hope Karnopp

The state Assembly halted efforts to repeal the state’s mask mandate Thursday after the legislature realized the move would lead to the loss of tens of millions in federal food assistance funding. 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported that a repeal of the mask mandate would cut off funding for SNAP, a program that provides food assistance to low-income people. 

The Assembly was scheduled to vote Thursday on the joint resolution that the Senate passed Tuesday. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, canceled the vote in order to make sure the move would not lead to a loss in federal funding.

In a Thursday memo, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau wrote that without a state emergency or disaster declaration in place, nearly a quarter of a million Wisconsin households would lose almost $50 million in benefits. 

"Our job is to guarantee when we pass legislation we know what the ramifications are," Vos told reporters after the session. "Unfortunately when our Senate colleagues passed it, they didn’t necessarily do the same due diligence."

Vos indicated that the Assembly could still return next week to repeal the mask ban. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she was concerned the joint resolution would come back for a vote. Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said over 400 people called and emailed her office this past week in support of the mask mandate. 

Meanwhile, the Senate passed an amendment to a larger COVID-19 package that would allow Gov. Tony Evers to declare a public health emergency solely to receive federal funding related to the pandemic. 

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, offered the amendment and urged for the Assembly to pass the joint resolution he sponsored. 

“The situation facing the legislature has not changed regarding the unlawful issuance of multiple emergency declarations by Governor Evers,” Nass said. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has not yet ruled whether Evers exceeded his authority by issuing multiple public health emergencies. 

The version of COVID-19 legislation passed by the Senate Thursday includes provisions that Evers opposes, including prohibiting COVID-19 mandates and limiting state and local health officers’ authority to close businesses and places of worship. The legislation has bounced between chambers during recent weeks and could now be headed for a veto. 

“Two weeks ago, the Senate Majority Leader and the Governor came to a compromise on a COVID-19 bill that was agreeable to everyone. Instead of engaging in good faith negotiations, Republicans have once again turned to theatrics, and have re-introduced amendments to the legislation which guarantees it will be vetoed,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, said.

Efforts to repeal the mask mandate faced broad opposition from the medical community, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. 

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents the Madison area, urged the state legislature not to overturn the mask mandate. Pocan said the mask mandate is the “most effective defense” Wisconsin has against new COVID-19 variants as vaccines are in the early stages of rollout. 

“Over and over again, we hear excuses from Republican state leaders that this mask mandate is an ‘overreach’ by the Governor. If that is the honest objection, then the legislature should immediately pass a bill themselves requiring masks to be worn statewide,” Pocan said. “If this is simply about appealing to the lowest common denominator of science deniers for political purposes, then shame on our legislature.”