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April 20, 2020

Governor authority and health emergencies

The Governor is authorized to declare emergencies under Wisconsin Statute section 323.10, a general statute on emergency government which specifically allows the Governor to declare an emergency in response to public health crises.

The Governor declared this emergency through Executive Order #72 on March 12, 2020. In this order, the Governor designated the Department of Health Services as the lead agency in handling the emergency, which is also specifically authorized by the statute.

Many of the actions taken in this emergency situation have been accomplished by orders of the Secretary of Health Services citing the authority of Executive Order #72, most notably the “Safer at Home” order requiring citizens to remain at home to the highest degree possible, with a list of exceptions - also referred to as Emergency Order #12. The current Secretary is a designee, appointed but not confirmed by the senate.

The Governor’s emergency power is not specifically granted by the Wisconsin Constitution but it is granted statutorily at Section 323.10. The Governor has the constitutional authority, in the event of “danger from the prevalence of contagious disease at the seat of government, to convene [the legislature] at any other suitable place within the state." (Wisconsin Constitution Article V section 4)

Emergency powers were first granted as a civil defense measure in 1960 (Chapter 628, Laws of 1959). A provision specifically granting the Governor a right to declare public health emergencies was added in 2002 (2001 Wisconsin Act 109, section 340j). This act was based on a model act that appeared to be geared toward a response to bio-terrorism events following terrorist attacks in 2001. The law provided a broad definition of public health emergency that allows the executive emergency power to be applied to non-terrorist public health events.

Wisconsin’s emergency statute specifies that a declaration of emergency expires 60 days after it is issued; the emergency can only be extended by a joint resolution of the Legislature. The Legislature also has the authority to terminate the emergency declaration by joint resolution.

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