Republicans vote to block UW System's ability to implement COVID-19 policies

NOW: Republicans vote to block UW System’s ability to implement COVID-19 policies

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A group of Republican lawmakers passed proposal that would make it more difficult for the UW System to enforce COVID-19 policies on campus in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee approved a motion (6-4) on a party line vote with all Republican lawmakers voting in support and Democrats opposed. 

Republicans say the move will now require the UW Board of Regents to get legislative approval first before issuing any COVID-19 policies such as mask requirements and weekly testing for unvaccinated students. 

The proposal was introduced last week by State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who co-chairs the committee.

Nass said committee will now have ability to block public health measures introduced by UW System officials.

"The path forward in addressing Covid-19 is not through excessive government mandates, but in the restoration of Americans being able to make voluntary informed decisions based on their individual health circumstances," Nass said in a statement. 

Some Democrats believe UW campuses can ignore the GOP action and instead act on their own. 

"I would argue that the university is not exceeding its statutory authority and therefore should be able to put these measures in place," said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who also serves on the rules committee. "This is incredible amount of power this committee has to put a halt to the universities health and safety protocols, that in itself is absurd."

The decision comes as the delta variant is surging across the U.S. and Wisconsin which is prompting many state and local officials to reevaluate their COVID-19 protocols. 

Opponents called the move dangerous as it could leave campuses powerless in implementing policies that could help curb the spread of COVID-19. A spokesman for the UW-System said the vote "feels like a political statement."

"Our focus is to ensure we are doing what needs to be done now to safely open for in-person teaching this fall," said Mark Pitsch, spokesman for the UW-System. 

Hours after the committee's vote, UW-Madison issued a mask order that will require students, employees and visitors to wear indoors while on campus. According to a press release it will go into effect Thursday, August 5th.

"Going back to masking is not a step that many of us wanted to take, but it is important to protect the health of those on our campus and in our community," the release said. "We will continue to monitor COVID-19 transmission rates on campus and in the community and will revisit our mask policies as the public health situation warrants."

UW System officials did not say whether or not they will continue to act on their own or if they'll submit their COVID-19 policies to lawmakers. 

Rep. Subeck predicts if college campuses issue restrictions with legislative approval, lawsuits could follow.

"If they decide to go forward and put protocols in place anyways, I suspect this will land in the courts," Subeck said. "We have seen Republicans in this state and particularly their leadership all to willing to throw away taxpayer dollars on needless lawsuits."

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