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State Senate passes proposed constitutional amendment on federal funding

GOP senators also passed a proposed ban on teaching K-12 students critical race theory

Clouds and a blue sky are seen behind the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin voters could be asked to give the Legislature more power over how to spend federal funds under a measure passed by Republicans in the state Senate Tuesday.

The GOP-backed legislation comes on the heels of nearly two years of acrimony between Republican state lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over how to spend billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 funding.

In Wisconsin, the governor has authority over how to spend federal funding, which Evers used to steer billions of dollars in federal coronavirus funding over the course of the pandemic.

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A proposal by state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, would require a joint committee of the Legislature to give its approval first, a step he says would restore the constitutional balance of power in Wisconsin.

“We know that once a Legislature gives up its power to the executive branch, you can never get it back,” Kooyenga said. ” And so what this does is it brings it back to the people.”

Because Kooyenga’s plan is a proposed constitutional amendment, it would sidestep a veto from Evers, but it would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature. That would place the question on ballots statewide, where Wisconsin voters would have the final say.

Democrats voted against the plan in the Senate Friday, arguing that if the Legislature had controlled federal funds during the pandemic, it could have ground the process to a halt, keeping money away from people who need it.

“Time after time, the Legislature has proven to be unresponsive to the needs of everyday Wisconsinites,” said state Sen. Melissa Agard, D- Madison. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of why the Legislature should not be in control of these dollars.”

The plan passed on a 21-12 vote with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against.

Republicans also passed another proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday that would only allow a person who is a “qualified elector” vote in an election for national, state, or local office or at a statewide or local referendum. The amendment was proposed after cities in other states allowed undocumented immigrants to vote in local elections.

Also on Tuesday, Republicans passed resolutions that would get the state of Wisconsin involved in national debates over the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court and the size of government.

One of the plans calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting the number of Supreme Court justices to nine.

Another proposal calls for an Article V Convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. Under the proposal, the convention would be limited to amendments that would impose fiscal constraint, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government and limit terms of office for members of Congress and other federal officials.

The resolutions on Supreme Court justices and a constitutional convention both passed narrowly, with Republicans and Democrats voting against.

“We’re setting in motion a process that we cannot control and we do not know the end of,” said state Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, one of the Republicans who opposed the plans.

Both chambers of the Legislature have now passed the resolution calling for a constitutional convention. The resolution on Supreme Court justices has yet to pass the Assembly.

Critical race theory bill heads to governor

State senators also gave final approval Tuesday to a proposal that would ban K-12 schools from teaching students about systemic racism in Wisconsin.

Supporters say the proposal would ban the teaching of critical race theory. It would specifically ban teaching students that a person “by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.” It would also ban teaching that a person, by virtue of their race, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by people of the same race.

The bill would also ban teaching that a person should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.

“The concept the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist, and that any individual by virtue of their race or sex is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, is fundamentally untrue,” said state Sen. Andre Jacque, R-DePere.

But state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, who is Black, said the measure was an effort to shield students from the history of slavery in America, and the challenges African Americans continue to face because of racism.

“We’re gonna have to be honest about our history. We’re gonna have to approach it, head on. Not whitewash it,” Taylor said. “If we don’t learn from our past, we’re doomed to repeat it.”

The measure already passed the Assembly. It heads next to the governor, who is likely to veto the plan.