Another Republican says don’t sue UW over COVID-19 policies

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A second Republican lawmaker says he doesn’t support suing the University of Wisconsin System over its COVID-19 protocols, deepening an intra-party squabble over whether the Legislature should take control of the system’s mitigation policies.

Sen. Steve Nass, co-chair of the Legislature’s rules committee, has threatened to sue system officials if they don’t submit their COVID-19 plans to the committee for approval by Thursday. System President Tommy Thompson has refused to capitulate, saying the system has the right to manage itself.

Thompson served four terms as governor, becoming a Republican icon. His stance represents a major break with his fellow Republicans who see almost any government mandate to slow the spread of COVID-19 as an overreach and has forced GOP lawmakers to pick sides.

Sen. Robert Cowles issued a statement Thursday saying he wouldn’t support a legal challenge. He said tying the system’s hands isn’t in the best interests of local communities or businesses. He’s the first Republican senator to state a position on the threatened legal action. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted Aug. 26 that a lawsuit would only add more confusion during an already stressful time.

Nass issued a statement late Thursday saying a few Republican legislators have “gone soft” but still he’ll ask Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to file a lawsuit to force the system to submit their protocols to the committee.

“I will continue to oppose and fight unlawful COVID-19 mandates issued by any state agency regardless of being led by a Democratic appointee or a former Republican governor,” he said. “Sadly, some in my party will only oppose unlawful COVID-19 mandates when issued by the other party.”

Aides for LeMahieu and Vos didn’t immediately respond to email messages.

Thompson has called for UW campuses to hold at least 75% of their classes in-person this fall. The schools have implemented a range of protocols over the last few weeks designed to meet that goal, including mask and testing mandates.

The system hasn’t imposed any vaccination requirements. But the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the system’s flagship school, reported Thursday that nine out of 10 people on campus, including faculty, staff and students, are fully vaccinated.

Thompson and Regents President Edmund Manydeeds sent Nass and the rules committee’s other co-chair, Rep. Adam Neylon, a letter Thursday reiterating that they won’t submit anything to lawmakers for approval. They said system officials have the statutory authority to govern themselves and the rules committee never held a hearing before demanding the system submit its protocols.

“We believe that your committee’s directives and the co-chair’s subsequent public statements stating an intent to subordinate and block our longstanding authority are both wrong on the law and wrong as a matter of public policy,” the letter said. “We have no plans to abdicate our responsibility.”

Aides in Neylon’s office didn’t respond to a message.


This story has been updated to correct date of Steineke’s tweet to Aug. 26.


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Todd Richmond
Todd Richmond
Richmond covers Wisconsin government and breaking news.