By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers has ordered state agencies to reduce spending by 5% between now and July, drawing praise on Wednesday from Republicans who called for even more reductions in the face of steep revenue drops stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans who heralded the cuts are also suing Evers to block his order keeping most nonessential businesses closed until May 26. Many of them, along with the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, want businesses to reopen sooner, particularly in more rural parts of the state that haven’t been hit as hard by COVID-19.
Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan informed state employees of the spending cuts in an email on Tuesday night. The cuts apply to state operations but not to aid for K-12 schools and local governments.
“The impact of the crisis on the overall economic climate will reduce state revenues at the same time that we are facing dramatically increased costs to marshal all potential resources to fight COVID-19,” Brennan said in the email, first obtained by WisPolitics.com.
Evers told President Donald Trump in a letter this month that the state could lose as much as $2 billion over the next year, although the administration hasn’t conducted a revenue projection since the pandemic began.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, praised the 5% reduction and said Evers should also consider freezing spending during the second year of the budget, which begins July 1.
“While we don’t know the complete picture for the state’s finances yet, we know it’s not going to be good,” Vos said.
Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, called the reduction a “great first step.”
“If Governor Evers is going to require businesses around the state to remain shuttered, it is only fair that the state government also take a cut,’ Nygren said. “I anticipate that this will be the first of many actions like this.”
Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have asked the conservative state Supreme Court to block Evers’ stay-at-home order that closed most nonessential businesses and to force his administration to work with the GOP-controlled Legislature on a different plan.
Brennan said that a state hiring freeze will continue, albeit with exemptions for positions related to responding to the pandemic and positions considered essential for maintaining state agency functions. Merit raises have been suspended and employee travel will be restricted to pandemic response, he added.
The state has received nearly $2 billion in aid from the federal government, but that money won’t be enough to cover existing costs, Brennan warned.
To date, 300 people have died of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the state has had more than 6,200 confirmed cases of the disease. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.
Meat-processing plants, particularly in and around Green Bay, have been hot spots. At least 551 meat and food processing workers have contracted the virus, which amounts to 9% of the state’s total cases, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
More than 400 workers at three plants in and near Green Bay have gotten sick. There are also more than 100 workers and contractors at a Birds Eye processing plant in Darien who have gotten the virus, the Journal Sentinel reported. The plant, which employs over 800 workers, is nearly shut down, the newspaper said.