Legislature’s opening day focused on pandemic politics around masks, access and power

The first session in nine months slides back into the gridlock of 2020

The inauguration of the 105th session of the Wisconsin Assembly. (Photo via WisEye.)
The inauguration of the 105th session of the Wisconsin Assembly. (Photo via WisEye.)

AB 1 — the first bill introduced in the Legislature for the 105th session that began Monday — is a COVID-19 response bill that the Assembly plans to fast-track to a vote this week. That’s good news for all the people who complained about the Legislature not convening over the last nine months despite the pandemic.

Monday was the Legislature’s first day back on the floor and while it was mostly a ceremonial kickoff to the 2021-22 session, there was lots of talk about a COVID bill of some sort moving forward.

The Wisconsin State Senate swearing in ceremony for officers.
The Wisconsin State Senate swearing in ceremony for officers.

The bad news is that now Democrats and Republicans have even more partisan, competing bill drafts that could make action tough in Wisconsin’s split-party government.

The bipartisan meetings between Democrat Gov. Tony Evers and GOP Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and GOP Speaker Robin Vos broke down without producing consensus. Now, partisan versions of pandemic-relief bills are filled with provisions the other side cannot accept. The Republican version unveiled late Monday will be voted on Tuesday in the Assembly health committee.

Echoing standoffs of 2020, Monday’s inauguration session featured battles over mask requirements and a GOP resolution to forcibly open the Capitol, which the governor closed during the pandemic.

There are now five versions of a second COVID-19 response bill. First came Gov. Tony Evers’ bill. Next came the outline of a bill from Vos in early December. After Evers, Vos and LeMahieu met several times, there was a bill the governor dubbed a compromise on items all three agreed upon, but the Republican leaders accused him of walking away from the negotiating table after Evers unveiled it in mid-December in a failed effort to get action before the end of the year

Democratic news conference announcing another version of a COVID-19 relief bill.
Democratic news conference announcing another version of a COVID-19 relief bill.

Then Monday, Assembly Democrats who did not attend the inauguration because masks were optional and no virtual attendance was permitted, unveiled a bill at a virtual morning news conference that includes all of Evers’ bill, plus such additional items as additional funding for rental assistance, food security and child care, as well as expanding Medicaid to provide $300 million, to cover other costs, as well as getting health insurance for more Wisconsinites, according to Minority Leader Gordon Hintz.

During a speech after his re-election as speaker, Vos said he and Senate Republicans agree on his COVID-19 response bill made up of 44 provisions. This bill has removed some controversial items from his first draft such as forcing school districts to pay families whose children received a virtual education. However it contains the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce-requested civil liability exemption to shield businesses and government from lawsuits brought by people who contract the coronavirus in the facility, even when the business is not adhering to COVID-19 requirements.

Other controversial items include limiting the power of public health officials to declare public health emergencies or to close businesses and houses of worship. It also bars any COVID-19 vaccination requirement in general, or for employment specifically. And it would give power over any future federal pandemic funding to the Legislature rather than the governor and make it more difficult for school boards to move districts to virtual classrooms.

Sen. Brad Pfaff at the Senate inauguration (via WisEye.)
Freshman Democratic Sen. Brad Pfaff is introduced at the Senate inauguration (via WisEye.)

After eight months of inaction, Republicans are beginning the new legislative session by proposing a politically divisive bill that prioritizes the wishes of their special interest backers over the public health needs and economic challenges of Wisconsinites,” charged Hintz.

In a potential place of agreement, the GOP bill also extends the suspension of the one-week waiting period for people applying for unemployment insurance benefits through March 14, although Evers had wanted it extended through July.

Happy New Year

Monday began with Gov. Tony Evers sending a letter to legislators wishing them happy new year, then quickly getting to the point — his frustration that there has not been a second COVID-19 recovery and response bill. He noted he had drafted a bill he saw as compromise legislation, but was disappointed it was not passed in 2020. His letter went out before Republicans unveiled their bill.

“As we begin a new year and you begin a new legislative session, I write today to ask for your urgent consideration and support of legislation to aid in our state’s continued response to COVID19,” Evers wrote. “I respectfully request that you prioritize the COVID-19 compromise bill — LRB-6592 — that I introduced several weeks ago now, and ask that the bill as drafted, which includes provisions agreed upon by Republican leaders and me, be the first bill taken up and passed by both respective houses so it can be sent to my desk without delay. Time is of the essence, and frankly, we cannot delay any longer.”

Robin Vos is sworn in after being formally elected as Assembly speaker by Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.
Robin Vos is sworn in after being formally elected as Assembly speaker by Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack swore in the Assembly members after offering a message that likely cheered Republicans, who have regularly had her vote in favor of their actions to limit pandemic health responses and suppress election participation: “I look forward to reviewing your legislative endeavors and perhaps one or two might mosey on up to the Supreme Court, and then I’ll really be able to review it.”

Vos gave a speech after being re-elected as speaker that laid out his priorities for the two-year session. He started by citing the Wisconsin Constitution to back up his take on the balance of power that has been the foundation of Republican legislators’ efforts to expand their power beginning in the lame duck session in Dec. 2018, after Democrats were elected governor and attorney general. 

“Our system of checks and balances reflects an understanding about a republican form of government held by the founders, that the legislative branch should be the superior branch,” said Vos. “In modern times, the executive and judicial branches have expanded their powers significantly beyond the founders’ expectations. Through the use of ideas such as executive orders, or simply refusing to carry out the law as enacted by the Legislature. The next two years are going to be critical as we work tirelessly to strengthen our republic and rebuild the foundation of government through the basic principle of the consent of the governed.”

On the budget, Vos said, “Over the next two years we will not let state government expand at the expense of our freedoms or our liberties.”

Speaker Robin Vos gives a speech at the 2021-22 inauguration.
Speaker Robin Vos gives a speech at the 2021-22 inauguration.

And continuing his theme of election reform that began with an invite-only hearing packed with Republican viewpoints, he offered, “Wisconsin also learned over the last year that we must restore confidence in the electoral process. We saw repeated attempts by outside groups to try to change Wisconsin election laws, through the courts, using the pandemic as their excuse. In some cases we saw election officials simply ignore the law, hoping to give an electoral benefit to their preferred candidate.”

Democrats were present both in person and virtually in the Senate. Both bodies, controlled by Republicans, made masks recommended but optional. However, LeMahieu provided a virtual attendance option for senators while Vos did not allow it in the Assembly.

Sen. Lena Taylor at the Senate inauguration (via WisEye.)
Sen. Lena Taylor at the Senate inauguration asks for masks to be required at the Capitol if Republicans reopen it (via WisEye.)

The most contentious Senate debate was a Democratic amendment to a GOP resolution that passed re-opening the Capitol to the public. Sens. Tim Carpenter, Lena Taylor and other Democrats pushed for an amendment to require masks in the Capitol, which was shot down by Republicans.

Chiming in on the mask issue was Dane County Executive Joe Parisi who called the lack of a mask requirement “unconscionable” and said it sent a poor message.

“People look to leaders in moments of crisis for guidance and to set an example,” he said in a statement. “Every opportunity Republican leaders have had to provide clarity in this pandemic, they’ve instead tried to politically appease a shrinking number of people in this state and country who remain in denial over this deadly pandemic.”

Parisi also touted the fact that Dane County has kept its per-capita cases of COVID-19 among the lowest in the state despite being an urban area, “because we embraced science from the get-go.” He added that the “Legislature should follow suit and send a clear message that needless sickness and death are no longer okay.”