Cooperation on Wisconsin COVID-19 responses hangs in the balance

Democrats see 'Lame Duck 2.0' and potential political profiteering in draft of GOP pandemic relief bill

Wisconsin Capitol and the Forward statue wearing a protective face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Nazan Gillie
Wisconsin Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Nazan Gillie

A draft of a Republican omnibus bill for a legislative session on COVID-19 response includes some measures — such as temporarily removing a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits to start — that work in concert with the executive branch and other elected officials to help Wisconsinites weather the pandemic, but one key provision also seeks to further augment the power of the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Republican leaders propose granting just 16 legislators — 12 of them Republicans — the ability to cut state spending without any approval from Gov. Tony Evers, his administration or the full Legislature.

The bill would give the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) the power to slash spending, including cuts to school funding, universities, healthcare or safety-net programs that Republicans have frequently targeted or cut in the past. The JFC is made up of 16 elected officials, eight senators and eight representatives. The balance on the committee is 12 Republicans and four Democrats.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Photo from state legislature website.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach

“We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and instead of using this as an opportunity to reach across the aisle to help Wisconsinites, Republicans are making this the 2018 lame duck session 2.0,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) tweeted. “Wisconsinites need relief now, not more political games.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul also responded with condemnation of the Republican proposal: “I would like to say it’s unbelievable, but it’s actually all too believable that Republican legislative leaders — who not only thought it was a good idea to hold, but went to court to insist on holding, an election yesterday — are attempting to include yet another power grab in legislation that’s meant to help people who have been impacted by the coronavirus public health emergency.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul

“Wisconsin families, workers, employers, students, and seniors are making enormous, unprecedented personal sacrifices right now. We need legislative action that’s focused on the addressing the serious challenges that Wisconsinites are dealing with, not political profiteering.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) chided Evers for his threats to veto the bill because of that measure.

“For almost a month we have been at work on a bill that includes essential provisions dealing with everything from Medicaid to the first week of unemployment” said Fitzgerald. “Millions of relief dollars are at stake for Wisconsin. Suggesting he’ll veto the full bill publicly, while privately we’re still negotiating, is irresponsible. We’ll keep working with the minority party to put together a bill that can hopefully pass soon with bipartisan support.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald 3/25/20
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald

It is unclear if the JFC proposal will be in the final version of the bill. Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) says he has kept in regular communication with Republican leadership to “share ideas on a bipartisan package we could all support.”

But while Democrats have been working with Republicans off of their bill draft memo, Hintz has let Republicans know that removing the governor’s authority was a non-starter. He also told the Evers administration that the JFC effort to allocate itself new powers was “no longer on the table.” 

State Rep. Gordon Hintz D-Oshkosh
Rep. Gordon Hintz

“There is mutual concern about the anticipated budget shortfall the state faces due to significant loss of revenue and increased demand for state services increasing costs,” says Hintz. “However Democrats have made clear that any proposal on how to best manage that shortfall and provide certainty to schools, local government, the UW System and other state programs has to maintain the role of the governor and his ability to sign off.”

In a release, Evers says he was presented with an overview of the Republicans’ proposed legislation that included the JFC power-grabbing provision that would allow the budget committee, as Evers described it, “to unilaterally cut investments in healthcare, local communities, and schools, among other important priorities.”

“I’m asking for the legislature to take politics out of this proposal so we can move forward on addressing the needs of our state,” Evers said in a statement. “We have work to do folks — we don’t have time to play politics, and this provision won’t do anything to help our state respond to COVID-19 or to help our families who are struggling during this crisis. It’s time to get serious.”

Gov. Tony Evers at a virtual news conference on 4/6/20 after he delays the April 7 election. (And before the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns his order.)
Gov. Tony Evers at a virtual news conference on 4/6/20.

The release of the GOP draft does make it clear that after weeks of waiting, the Wisconsin Legislature is closer to meeting in an extraordinary session to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, Speaker Robin Vos — as the legislation was being read by the media — tweeted that the Assembly had “tested its technology for an upcoming session.” It remains unclear if legislators will be meeting remotely during the stay-at-home order.

Since March 21, Evers has put out two draft bills of his own — which Republicans rejected saying they wanted to draft their own bill, much as they did with the budget bill he presented. One of their strongest objections to Evers’ proposals was giving the Department of Health Services the ability to spend money without Legislative approval during a declared health emergency.

Evers has been calling on the Legislature to act to address such matters as skyrocketing unemployment, state needs for combating COVID-19 and election safety, which is moot for April 7, but there is a special Congressional election in early May and the November general election.

The GOP omnibus bill also includes language that would do the following, and much more, during the public health emergency:

  • Give healthcare professionals immunity from civil liability under certain circumstances.
  • Exempt manufacturers of medical supplies and equipment from civil liability
  • Prevent returns of merchandise.
  • Alter governmental deadlines, training and in-person requirements.
  • Exempt the Legislature from a rule that forbids elected officials to send out more than 50 pieces of identical correspondence during their campaigns.
  • Temporarily suspend Medical Assistance provisions to meet conditions for enhanced federal matching percentage.
  • Change school district reporting and requirements including pupil assessments, virtual instruction and instructional hours for private schools.
  • Authorize Seniorcare to cover all vaccinations
Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.