Despite a sprinkling of snarky comments and jabs, there were glimmers of hope Tuesday that the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic governor might work together on a plan to address COVID-19 in Wisconsin. A plan, that is, that Republicans wouldn’t rush to challenge in court and that might not be vetoed by the governor.
Both sides — which have been in a standoff since the pandemic started — made public moves early this week.
Monday at 6:44 p.m. Gov. Tony Evers’ office privately sent Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu the draft of a bill his office put together to address a multitude of issues that have arisen tied to the pandemic.
The bill tackles challenges in healthcare, education, the workforce and business — and renews measures and funding allocated in April for 2020 that will expire if action isn’t taken before the next legislative session starts in January.
Legislative leaders had not responded to the email Tuesday morning; instead Vos announced a press conference to unveil “legislative initiatives to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and assist Wisconsinites during these challenging times.” At that point, Evers’ office shared the governor’s bill with reporters.
Seemingly annoyed that Evers’ bill draft was public, Vos told reporters he would prefer to exchange ideas and then draft a bill together. “We do not have specific drafted proposals because our intention was to sit down with the governor and actually talk about our ideas, putting a bill together as a whole,” Vos said.
The speaker took shots at Evers while repeating that COVID-19 should not be approached in a partisan manner. He complained about Democratic election ads and spending, only to return moments later to talking about how politics has no place in a pandemic response.
“There’s no doubt about it— politics shouldn’t be part of it,” Vos said. “I don’t think Democrats were necessarily sincere in wanting to be able to have a discussion about a lot of these topics, because they were in the middle of their allies spending tens of billions of dollars lying about our record, but that’s behind us now,” said Vos, who made no reference to spending by his own side, nor mention of the legislative committee he has tasked with investigating unsubstantiated claims of election fraud made after Joe Biden’s victory in Wisconsin.
“Gov. Evers is the governor and the Legislature is controlled by Republicans, we’ve got to figure a way to get this done,” said Vos. “And that’s why we’re trying to be sincere today and say, Here’s some good ideas. We think, potentially, he has good ideas as well, we can find that common ground.”
Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback, on Twitter after the news conference, shot back at Vos: “[email protected] has consistently tried working in good faith with Republican leadership on our state’s response to COVID-19, as we did yesterday by sharing our legislation and asking for their input and feedback. It’s shameful that Republicans are watching our state face an unprecedented crisis and would rather continue playing politics than work with the governor to do what’s best for the people of our state.”
The reactions showcased the distance between the two branches of government, which have been entrenched without moves toward unity since the Legislature passed a first COVID bill and adjourned in April. But however grudging, the topic of a state COVID-response plan is back — and both sides are expressing interest in discussing how to mitigate the current crisis and taking action to take care of Wisconsinites.
“If we could find a way to have common ground, I’d certainly be open to coming in December, if that’s possible,” said Vos, referring to convening the Legislature. However, Vos did not have any Assembly Democrats or state senators from either side at his news conference. Vos expressed gratitude for action on COVID-19 to President Donald Trump.
Although the talking between the two sides was done via the media and got prickly at times, Republicans are once again engaging and Evers has forwarded his most recent ideas in a bill that can also serve as a starting point of discussion.
Under the governor’s bill, insurance plans would be required to not only cover the cost of testing for COVID-19, but also diagnosis, treatment, prescriptions and vaccines related to the virus. A summary of the bill noted that, according to estimates from Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the cost of inpatient hospital treatment ranges from approximately $10,000 to $20,000 and patients with insurance are often billed more than $1,300, which has kept people from seeking treatment.
The bill would allow “critical workers” — including those in healthcare — to claim worker’s compensation if they contract COVID-19 from their occupation.
Along with the bill draft and summary, the office included a flyer designed to show the urgency of a coronavirus response — including costs of continuing financial support for testing, contact tracing and other pandemic responses through April 1, 2021.
“The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) currently lists Wisconsin as one of the top states in the country for the rate of positive COVID-19 cases per capita,” the flyer states. “And, data forecasting shows that the spread of COVID-19 will only worsen in nearly every corner of the state as we head into the winter months.”
The total cost of the bill would exceed $500 million, including these costs of continued actions in following areas would be:
- Testing $58 million
- Contact tracing $36 million
- Testing lab supplies $255 million
- Hospital surge capacity support: $155 million
- Vaccine infrastructure $10 million
- Public awareness campaign: $2 million
Current funding will end on Dec. 30, 2020 if further action is not taken, according to the Evers administration.
With Wisconsin setting numerous records of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 this month, the bill extends the relaxation of a number of requirements that were passed in the April 15 bill but will have expired by the end of 2021.
An example of an item included in Evers’ bill that was passed by the Legislature in April, but has since expired, is giving the state flexibility in hiring and keeping short-term employees if necessary. Vos labeled Evers’ plan a “rehash” of old ideas, but conceded some of them needed to be extended, although he said funds should come from the federal government first, then the state government and complained that it was costly.
Evers would allow Social Security Disability (SSDI) recipients to receive concurrent unemployment insurance benefits, as well as permitting certain eviction and foreclosures to be suspended by state government. Vos labeled that a poison pill: “We’re not going to say it’s OK to not pay your rent, that wouldn’t be good for our economy.”
Other measures include:
- On-line notarization of estate planning would be permitted.
- State and local officials would have the ability to waive interest, penalties and payments on loans through the end of 2021.
- The one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance through the end of 2021 would be suspended.
- Flexibility with the terms of the Work Share program would be continued through the end of 2021.
- Telehealth visits would be mandated as alternatives to in-person medical appointments, allowing 30 day extension of prescription refill extension without additional doctor’s authorization and other moves to keep patients safe and lower the burden on healthcare workers.
Some of the measures are meant to ease the burden on schools from switching between in-person and online or hybrid educational models. This includes waiving student assessments and school report card requirements for the 2020-21 school year. The bill also grants flexibility to rehire or re-instate/transfer licenses for certain professionals, particularly teachers, which would allow for smaller in-person classes or more staffing for online students.
Blame the media
After announcing his ideas, Vos turned to criticizing the “mainstream media” for questions at his news conference on when and how he might meet and work with the governor. Vos asserted that the public isn’t interested in such things.
It was clear from reporters’ questions — which were eventually cut off as they pressed him — that journalists disagreed and that they wanted to tell their audiences whether the two parties would at long last get together to address the COVID crisis. The Legislature has not met nor passed any bills on COVID-19 — or any other topic — since April 15, leading to skepticism that the GOP has been working on the issue.
Vos countered those arguments saying, “We want to offer new ideas, things that have not been done before, and ideas that can help.”
Top on Vos’ list were key problems plaguing Wisconsin’s fight against COVID-19 spreading, such as too few contact tracers. He suggested doubling the number of contact tracers — although he thinks that should be done by the local health agencies rather than the state.
Other priorities Vos mentioned were extending the use of the Wisconsin National Guard to help with testing, increasing the availability of rapid testing and piloting at-home testing, which he said was seeing some success in Minnesota.
“We know that one of the biggest concerns someone has is having the ability to get a test, and then know the results as quickly as they possibly can instead of having to wait at home wondering when you’re going to get the email letting you know whether or not you can go back to work, whether or not your kids can go back to school, whether or not you can go back to living as normal a life as you can during COVID-19,” said Vos.
He suggested hiring unemployed workers as contact tracers — and paying them on top of their unemployment benefits — as well as seeking out medical or public health students who would get pay, experience and credit as contact tracers.
Vos emphasized helping businesses (he criticized Evers’ programs as not targeted to businesses directly affected by the coronavirus) and suggested offering them immunity from potential lawsuits, along with giving school districts and local government similar immunity.
“I know many fear right now, that they are afraid of being sued for even doing things to the best of their ability and still having somebody else second-guess their decisions and spend a whole lot of wasted time and effort on lawsuits,” said Vos. “So we’d like to have some kind of limited liability protections for [these] entities.”
Lastly, Vos criticized the Evers administration for falling far behind on unemployment insurance filings and payments.
“One of the things that I did notice, which was disappointing, is that we noticed there was really no discussion of the huge problems we are having with unemployment,” said Vos of Evers’ bill. “And the fact that people, still months later, are not getting the unemployment that they unfortunately have to have to pay their bills because of restrictions put on by the federal or the state government.”
Also hitting on a top problem confronting national and state governments, Vos said there needs to be a plan to acquire and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine once one is approved. That’s something certainly on the minds of Evers and the Department of Health Services as well.
As legislative leaders, Vos and LeMahieu can bring the Legislature into session in extraordinary session at any time. Evers sent a letter to legislative leaders on Oct.12 offering to meet and discuss Republicans’ statewide plan to respond to this pandemic. In Monday’s email, the governor’s staff offered to “walk leadership staff through the bill and answer any questions you may have” on Wednesday for an hour after their regular call.
“Following that briefing, it is our expectation your offices will have the needed conversations with your caucuses and leaders will come ready to discuss and finalize the bill with the Governor on Friday,” his team wrote, offering up times for a phone conversation later. “On Friday, we would like to know what the two leaders are or are not supportive of and any other ideas you would like to see included in the legislation.”