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Legislative budget committee disburses opioid settlement money amid PFAS stand-off

The opioid plan passed unanimously while Republicans and Democrats continued their months-long fight over $125M for PFAS

Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, chairs a public hearing of the Joint Finance Committee
Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, chairs a public hearing of the Joint Finance Committee at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023 in Madison, Wis. Amena Saleh/Wisconsin Watch

The Joint Finance Committee — the powerful legislative body that allocates state spending — approved a plan for using opioid settlement money on Tuesday, but did not take up a PFAS funding plan put forward by Gov. Tony Evers.

Republicans, who control the committee and hold strong majorities in the Legislature, say they passed a bill to deal with PFAS funding, which Evers vetoed. Democrats argue that the bill lacked key provisions and that Evers said he’d veto it from jump.

On Tuesday, the budget committee approved a Republican plan about how to spend $36 million from a $26 billion lawsuit settlement with opioid manufacturers. The state of Wisconsin and 87 local communities have received disbursements from that settlement for the last two years.

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The plan — a rewrite of an earlier Evers proposal — passed unanimously, after some pushback from Democrats. It allocates $9.3 million for law enforcement, $7.7 million to help build out residential and medication-assisted recovery programs and $1.5 million in grants to community-based service providers.

It also includes $3 million for medication-assisted treatment, $1 million for K-12 education and prevention and $600,000 to educate pregnant people about the dangers of opioids.

“It is with great pleasure that I see that we can assist in keying in on that (pregnant) population — prenatal and postnatal — to try to help these new moms be the best moms possible,” said state Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan.

Another $6 million would go to federally recognized tribes, aimed at developing and supporting strategies for opioid use prevention, harm reduction and recovery.

After the committee’s official business, chaired by state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and state Rep. Mark Born, R- Beaver Dam, Democrats remained for a special meeting of the body called by Evers to take up spending plans regarding PFAS and hospital closures. But Republicans members left the room, skipping the second meeting.

On social media, Evers called their departure a “damn shame.”

Republicans argue that the GOP-held Legislature already passed a funding bill for PFAS remediation — one that Evers vetoed in April.

“There’s only one meeting today, and you’re in it right now,” Marklein said during the official committee meeting.

Partisan fighting over PFAS spending

Evers and his Democratic allies and Republicans have been at odds over releasing $125 million set aside during last year’s budget process to clean up PFAS, often called forever chemicals.

While the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers agreed to provide that funding through the state budget, they’ve disagreed on how the money should be spent. The bill Evers vetoed in April would have used the funds to provide grants to communities and landowners. Evers argued that the bill impeded regulators’ authority.

Republicans say that amounts to playing politics.

“The decision to stop this program right now is on him and that veto,” said co-chair Born on Tuesday. “He’s trying to make up fake meetings and trying to put the blame on other people and deflect it because he’s desperate to remove that blame from him.”

Evers has threatened a lawsuit over the PFAS holdup. His administration has also proposed a $15 million spending plan to address hospital closures in western Wisconsin, including Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls.

“Republicans have had every opportunity to do the right thing and release $140 million to fight PFAS and support Western Wisconsin and they refuse to do so,” Evers wrote on X Tuesday.

In a statement, state Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, who sits on the finance committee, called the Democrats’ special meeting a stunt.

 “Once again, Gov. Evers made a disingenuous attempt to call the Joint Committee on Finance into a special meeting following his veto preventing relief for the thousands of Wisconsinites affected by PFAS contamination,” he said.

Earlier in the day, state Democrats held a press conference arguing that Republicans are holding money hostage. They also suggested the GOP will try to leverage these issues during this year’s elections.

“The Joint Finance Committee is at the heart of Republican obstruction and inaction in Madison,” said Hesselbein. “It’s past time for Republicans to get out of the way and allow this funding to be put to use to keep our communities healthy and strong.”