Gov. Tony Evers met with legislators Thursday and says he hopes to do so again next week to discuss new legislation to address issues spotlighted in more than a week of protests nationwide against police brutality and systemic racism.
Evers, speaking at a media briefing on the state’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, held open the possibility of calling a special session of the Legislature. But he also said he was focused on “finding some common ground with the Legislature” on measures, including Assembly Bill 1012, setting a statewide standard on police use of force.
“A special session is possible, but I want to make sure it’s something that we don’t just gavel in or gavel out,” Evers said, alluding to previous attempts to nudge Republicans, who hold the majority in both the Assembly and the Senate, to take up bills to curb gun violence as well as other measures. “Because that would send the absolute wrong message to the people in Wisconsin who care about this issue, which is the vast, vast majority of them.”
Evers’ remarks Thursday came the day after a landmark blow-up in the already testy relationship between Republican leaders in the Legislature and the governor.
On Wednesday, responding to an open records request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the governor’s office released a recording made during a May 14 telephone conference that included Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and staff members for all three. Upon disclosure of the recording, Vos and Fitzgerald issued statements condemning Evers and accusing him of breaching their trust.
At Thursday’s media briefing, Evers reiterated what a spokesperson said late Wednesday: that the recording was made without his knowledge by a staff member to assist in routine notetaking during the May 14 conference.
“The practice has ended with this one time,” said Evers, who declined to answer a reporter who asked whether the employee would be fired. “I will not discuss personnel issues in public,” he said.
Wisconsin law permits calls to be recorded without disclosure as long as one party on the call knows it’s being recorded; that person can be the one making the recording. Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel for the governor’s office, told reporters that the recording was legal because the staff member who made it was taking part in the call.
Immigration groups criticize Vos
In the recording, Vos is heard suggesting that Racine County’s spike in COVID-19 infections was a result of spread among immigrants with a “culture” of working and living in closer proximity to each other. The broadcast of the recording prompted accusations that Vos was scapegoating immigrants and calls for him to resign as speaker from Voces de la Frontera and other immigrant rights groups. Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), who had tweeted that the Evers staffer responsible for the recording should be fired, also joined the condemnation.
Vos dismissed the critics, tweeting at Brostoff: “Listen to what was said and not the sensationalist headline. Facts show communities of color are disproportionally impacted. That’s science.”
Evers passed up an invitation to pile on, however. When a reporter asked Thursday if he thought Vos should apologize for the comment, the governor, who said he had never listened to the recording, replied: “I’m not going to get in a situation to describe whether Speaker Vos should apologize or not.”
Asked about the Assembly speaker linking immigrants’ “culture” to higher infection rates, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the state Department of Health Services [DHS] Bureau of Infectious Disease, drew a distinction between ethnic background and individual behavior.
“Immigration status, race or ethnicity have no biologic role in someone’s risk of acquiring infection, given that you’re exposed,” Westergaard told reporters. “Someone’s likelihood of being exposed is a reflection of how close [in] proximity you are to other people who may be exposed — working in indoor environments without physical distancing and without face masks is a well known risk factor, and those things are known to be true independent of race, ethnicity or background.”
During Thursday’s briefing, Evers first touched on racial inequities, including the abuse of Black people by police, in his opening remarks. He again argued for expanding Medicaid in Wisconsin using federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act as a means of expanding access to care.
He also commended the peaceful demonstrations across the state in the last two weeks, while cautioning that being in large crowds raises the risk of exposure to the virus responsible for COVID-19. Those participating should continue to practice physical distancing from other people, wear protective masks, and seek testing for the virus if they get symptoms of the illness, Evers said.
‘We have to respond’
The governor mentioned his Thursday meeting with legislators after a question about how he wanted to advance police reform and the fight against systemic racism.
“We’re at a watershed time in the state of Wisconsin relative to this issue,” Evers said. “So yes, we have to respond.”
In the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the persistent demonstrations that have followed, Evers said he has spoken with and listened to “people on the ground and community leaders across the state, and they’re demanding action.”
Besides legislation directly focused on policing and police conduct, “we have to do things around making sure our communities are safer and stronger,” said Evers, taking housing, healthcare, education into account.
Responding to another reporter’s question about how he would “heal that relationship” and “build back that trust” with Vos and Fitzgerald to allow his office and the lawmakers “to move forward,” Evers pointed to the Legislature’s late 2018 lame duck session in which Republicans stripped some of his powers.
“I was really irritated about it. I didn’t think it was right,” the governor said. “But that did not stop me from trying to work with the Republican leadership and Republicans in general to accomplish some things in [the 2019] budget.” Tackling racism, he added, was too serious an issue to put aside.
Thursday’s DHS briefing also included several developments related to COVID-19 and relief from the impact of the virus that Evers and DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm announced:
- A total of $40 million in funding will be distributed to hospitals in the state, allotted based on their share of the state’s Medicaid spending, to address expenses and lost revenue in March through May as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds come from the state’s allotment under the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The distribution of the funds was worked out in collaboration with the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said Palm.
- Evers said the Department of Public Instruction has been consulting with school districts and groups representing parents as well as teachers to prepare for the fall, including how classrooms might be reconfigured to meet physical distancing guidelines. DPI will release documents in the weeks ahead offering guidance to school districts, he added, but it will be important for parents to feel their children will be safe under any school reopening plans.
- DHS has received a $675,526 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support crisis counseling for people undergoing stress or feeling anxiety as a result of the pandemic. In partnership with the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, DHS is directing the funding to local agencies in Brown, Dane, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine, Rock, and Walworth counties.
- The income ceiling for households participating in an expanded federal emergency food assistance will open the program up to households with incomes of up to three times the federal poverty level.
- Also at Thursday’s briefing, a DHS spokeswoman turned aside questions about a high-ranking employee of the department who was reportedly asked to resign last month, saying that the department would not discuss personnel issues.