Remember come November
If Gov. Tony Evers announced that the sun was going to rise tomorrow in the east, it is a sure bet Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and his senate sidekick Scott Fitzgerald would counter with statements arguing that the sun will actually rise in the west. This would be followed up by official releases from the laundry list of Republican front organizations even questioning the existence of the sun and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce issuing statements about the need to keep burning as much coal as possible because the state cannot depend on the sun to keep residents warm.
While this hyperbolic level of lunacy may seem like an exaggeration, sadly in Wisconsin, when it comes to state politics, childish bickering is the standing order of the day.
A prime example of this was last week’s Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to disregard the plain language of long-standing state law governing decision making during epidemics. Instead the justices chose to legislate from the bench and chose to twist the law to a process that put thousands of Wisconsin residents at risk.
At issue, at least on the surface, was if the governor, through the department of health services (DHS), had the authority to continue the COVID-19 Safer at Home orders that were set to be extended through May 26 followed by a phased-in reopening of the state based on infection levels. It should be noted that the safer at home order and the state’s guidelines were those suggested by President Donald Trump’s White House.
There is room for legitimate debate over if the order should have been statewide versus having a more regional approach. The issue at hand was only secondary to Vos not wanting Evers to score a win, regardless of how many lives it saves or how many thousands of dollars in medical expenses it costs residents who become ill.
The DHS derives its authority through state law. What the legislature gives, it can also take away. In this case the legislature at any point in the past two months could have changed the law to require legislative review of proposed emergency rules. If Vos truly has a mandate from state voters and an iron grip on the legislature, such changes should have been easy to accomplish.
The problem is that public opinion polls showed overwhelming support for the governor’s plan with few real hardand- fast restrictions on the average citizen, instead relying on common sense and Wisconsin residents’ inherent desire to look out for their neighbors. This does not ignore the real pain felt by owners of nonessential businesses who were forced to close their doors. Nor does it discount the potential economic harm of shutting down an economy for a long period of time.
In the elementary playground level of politics in the state capital, these arguments were secondary to knowing that someone needed to be the bad guy. With political ambitions at stake, Vos didn’t want it to be himself.
The State Supreme Court, with its current Republican-backed 5-2 majority, became the perfect patsy to Vos’ scheme to undermine the governor. The scheme backfired when, rather than granting a stay that would have had the state’s opening under the legislature’s terms just in time for the Memorial Day weekend, justices tossed all the restrictions and pretended as if the pandemic didn’t exist at all. It is easy to do that when you are meeting by video-conference from your comfortable home offices.
While there were many who celebrated the reopening by flocking to bars in the hours following the decision and providing plenty of B-roll material for national newscasts, the ruling caused many more questions than it answered. It also effectively eliminated any clear way of having those questions answered on more than a local level.
Only time will tell if the premature reopening of Wisconsin will hasten the start of the much-feared second wave of the virus or if opponents of the safer at home order will be proven right.
If the stakes were simply jobs or economic loss or gain, the political games would be business as usual. Unfortunately, Vos, his pet Supreme Court Justices, and to an extent Evers, are playing politics with life and death consequences. People have died from COVID-19 and will continue to do so until the disease is stopped.
Voters must remember come November that public safety should never be a partisan issue. Voters must hold those who did nothing, while Vos and Fitzgerald fiddled, accountable for leading Wisconsin down this path.