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Capital City Sunday: Who should control federal COVID-19 relief money, addressing anti-Asian sentiment

3-28 Cap City Guests FSG

MADISON (WKOW) -- The latest partisan split at the Capitol is over whether the legislative or executive branch should have the final say over how the American Rescue Plan relief dollars are spent in Wisconsin.

Republicans in control of the legislature passed a bill this week giving their branch oversight of the latest round of federal money coming to the state.

GOP leaders argued the spending process would be more transparent if the governor's spending plans had to go before the Joint Finance Committee.

Democrats have called the bill a power grab and point to 2020 when Republican lawmakers would not go back into session to pass state-based pandemic relief outside of the initial bill in April.

GOP leaders said at the time Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had the flexibility to spend the money on his own and needed to do because the funds had be exhausted by year's end.

With the American Rescue Plan dollars available for four years, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said the circumstances had changed for this relief package and the legislature now needs a say.

"The election year is typically a year where we don't have legislative sessions," Steineke said. "This is a different story where last year's CARES Act money had to be spent by the end of December and we were obviously in the very early stages of the pandemic when this money was released."

Democrats say the bill allows Republicans to drag out and politicize Evers's relief plans.

"Considering their history of denying and delaying, I don't want to give the Republicans a chance to do nothing," said Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason).

Bewley said legislative Democrats had confirmed with legislative council the bill's language means Republicans on Joint Finance only needed to schedule a meeting to pause parts of Evers's spending initiatives. Theoretically, Bewley said, Republicans could keep delaying the meeting and muck up the process that way.

Evers has said he will veto the bill; Steineke was noncommittal when asked if Republicans would sue Evers over the issue.

"That's something we'll have to see," Steineke said. "I certainly support coming in and trying to override his veto because I think it is critically important that the people of Wisconsin have a say in how this money is spent."

Legislative Republicans also passed bills banning government agencies and private employers from requiring people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Bewley said it was hypocritical of Republicans to, in this instance, impose restrictions on businesses.

"The Republicans say they don't like telling people what to do but they're telling bosses and employers how to run their businesses," Bewley said.

Steineke acknowledged it's unusual for Republicans to issue an edict to private employers but said his caucus placed greater weight on the individual liberties of Wisconsinites.

"It's challenging to force that on people as a condition of employment, as a condition of being able to make a living," Steineke said. "That they would be forced to take a vaccine; it's problematic for a lot of people."

The bills drew opposition from statewide health groups, including the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Nurses Association.

Bewley said the Republicans' moves were unnecessary since state statute already allows people to object to mandatory vaccination efforts should they cite religious or personal convictions as a reason.

While Evers has not publicly commented on whether he will veto the bills, Bewley said there was no way Evers would sign it.

"He will veto this bill," Bewley said. "He will veto the bill."

Anti-Asian sentiment a familiar feeling

Long before most Americans had heard the term, 'coronavirus,' Cindy I-Fen Cheng had written about how major global events shifted the way Asian people were treated in the United States.

Cheng, an Asian-American studies professor at UW-Madison, wrote in 2014 about how the Chinese Communist Revolution and the Korean War led to discrimination against Asian-Americans, even if they'd lived in the U.S. their entire lives.

Cheng said one can draw a direct line between that mistreatment of Asian-Americans -- to say nothing of Japanese internment camps during World War II -- and the discrimination Asian-Americans have faced over the past 13 months as backlash to the novel coronavirus that emanated from Wuhan, China.

"Calling it the 'Wuhan Virus' or the 'China Virus' seems very neutral, like it's just a geographical notation," Cheng said. "However, it cloaks certain kinds of feelings, certain kinds of stigmas."

While national data isn't available yet, municipal data from places like New York City reveal a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year.

However, it was the shooting attack earlier this month in Atlanta that drove demonstrators into the streets across the U.S. to show support for Asian-Americans. A gunman shot and killed eight people in three different spa locations; six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

"You have to seek that out and it isn't random," Cheng said of the shooter. "It's very targeted."

Authorities in Georgia have said the shooter told them he was addicted to sex and targeted those locations not because of race but because he saw them as temptations. Asian activists have said regardless of the shooter's words, the act speaks to the fetishization of Asian women in some men's minds.

Cheng said part of finding a larger solution is working to have more people realize a form of racism that is still prevalent in the U.S. involves respect for the culture and contributions of another race but still a mistrust of its people.

"Cultural appreciation is not the person," Cheng said. "You can enjoy eating Chinese food but not have a respect for the person who made the food for you and I think that disconnect is part of the tragedy."