After weeks of wrangling, Wisconsin’s COVID-19 relief law is signed

Legislative pandemic bill is good enough, say Republicans. Democrats add, "for now"

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, (R - Juneau), left, and Senate President Roger Roth, (R - Appleton), 2nd left, talk to Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, (D - La Crosse), right before the start of the session. On Wednesday April 15, 2020 the Wisconsin State Senate in Madison, held a virtual session to take up legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the state will receive more than $2 billion in federal aid. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

The state Senate voted 32 – 0 to pass the Legislature’s COVID-19 relief bill, including waivers that must be in place this week in order for Wisconsin to be able to secure $2 billion in aid from the federal government.

“These are extraordinary times and these decisions are gut wrenching as we move through them,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). “This bill is imperfect … but it is timely. … This bill is bipartisan, it is common sense.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald — along with all senators other than Senate President Roger Roth and Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling — spoke and voted remotely from their homes or offices, with a few glitches. Most notably, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) was unable to give her speech, and by the time technical glitches were fixed, Fitzgerald “called the question,” meaning he moved to take an immediate final vote, over Taylor’s objection that she had been silenced. (She was the one of the 33 senators who had not recorded a vote by publication time.)

What Democrats and Republicans gave up to get the bill across the finish line was discussed during the Assembly session, but the bottom line is that many of the bill’s elements simply clear a procedural path for Wisconsin to secure more than $2 billion from the federal aid package signed on March 27.

Evers signs COVID-19 bill into law
Evers signs COVID-19 bill into law while #SaferAtHome. Photo courtesy of Evers’ office.

Gov. Tony Evers promptly signed the bill on Wednesday after sending legislative leaders a letter calling for it to be immediately sent to his desk. However, he indicated some disappointment in the final product and how long it took to get done. 

My pen has been waiting for weeks to sign legislation that guarantees Wisconsin will capture our fair share of federal dollars under the CARES Act and ensures workers experiencing unemployment and underemployment won’t be forced to wait an extra week for needed benefits to kick in,” said Evers. “This bill is finally a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done.”

In particular, Evers echoed legislative Democrats who decried the lack of hazard pay or workers compensation for all frontline, critical workers from first responders to childcare providers to healthcare workers. Also absent from the final bill were Democratic proposals that would have provided “meaningful support” for small business and farmers.

Attorney General Josh Kaul also found the bill lacking: “The men and women on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus make a remarkable sacrifice every day they go to work: they put their own health, and in many cases the health of their family members, at risk,” he said. “We should be doing more to support these essential workers than simply ensuring that they’re able to receive worker’s compensation benefits if they contract COVID-19. But, because of an amendment that gutted a protection for first responders that originally had been included in the coronavirus bill, the legislation that passed the state legislature doesn’t even do that.”

Senate President Roger Roth, (R-Appleton), during a break in the session. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Both sides admit that federal funds are not permitted to cover all the types of needs Wisconsin will have during and after the pandemic crisis. Democrats attempted to add funding into the bill for some of those purposes and to extend its provisions throughout this crisis, should it go beyond May 11, which is when the current emergency declaration ordered by Evers expires.

Democrats were rebuffed by Republicans on these amendments — including a push for mail-in voting for 2020 — mirroring what transpired Tuesday in the Assembly. There the bill added only a Republican amendment (containing the cut Kaul objects to) before passing on a bipartisan vote of 97 – 2. 

Senate leaders from Democratic and Republican camps each had complaints about the bill and each side got some of what they wanted.

A Democratic amendment to make all items in the relief bill apply for as long as there was any COVID-19 emergency declaration in this pandemic — such as waivers to access Medicaid funds — was rejected by Republicans. 

Wednesday April 15, 2020 the Wisconsin State Senate in Madison held a virtual session to take up legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Much of what Democrats like — such as the removal of the unemployment waiting period and permitting the Department of Health secretary to approve health-related waivers (something that was taken away in the lame-duck session) is temporary, while some of what Republicans want — like reducing training needed for certified nursing assistants — is permanent. For example, the elimination of a one-week waiting provision before unemployment benefits start only affects people applying between March 2020 through Feb. 7 2021, then the wait kicks back in.

The Republicans began with a shocking proposal to give the Joint Finance Committee the power to cut or eliminate funding for any programs or items the majority didn’t like — a measure that Evers indicated would have made him veto the bill.

It was a smart negotiating stance because after that shot, very little could seem quite so brazen. 

In her speech, Shilling praised Wisconsinites for exhibiting persistence, strength, generosity and “moxie at its best,” adding, “It is families and businesses and communities that have stepped up to do their part in this fight. They’ve adjusted their lives. They’ve changed habits — literally — overnight. And they have done their part to stop the spread of the virus.”

“While the governor and this administration have taken decisive and proactive measures to protect our state, and the health of our welfare of our citizens, this Legislature has yet to rise to the challenge,” Shilling said. “Many in the majority party continue to downplay the significance of this crisis. … “We all want our offices, our churches, our bars, our restaurants to return to business as usual. Everyone in this chamber understands the enormous financial challenges that lie ahead. But our number one priority right now needs to be the health and safety of each and every resident. That is why it is disappointing that the plan before us today is limited in scope.” 

Sen. Chris Larson

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) called the April 7 election “a national embarrassment” in pushing for sending all voters an absentee ballot via the mail for the fall election. 

“This is about public safety, while preserving democracy, said Larson. “ If we’re able to to convene in this type of a session, just to be able to debate and pass something… I think it’s ridiculous for us to expect them to go out in public and vote, considering that both the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court forwarded their rulings virtually [to require] in-person voting.”

Sen. Mark Miller

Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) added, “Wisconsin’s political leaders were roundly criticized for conducting the spring election in the midst of a world pandemic, a pandemic which was approaching a period of projected rapid contagion in Wisconsin.”

No Republicans, other than Fitzgerald, spoke.

“The long-term needs don’t go away,” said Shilling. “This pandemic is not going to be over on May 11. The ripples won’t end on May 11. I implore this body, this Legislature, to know that we are going to have to come back. This bill is a first step to return to some economic security, but this is not a one-and-done. … This is not the end. This is just the beginning.”

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.
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.