After a delay of nearly two hours, the Assembly began its session on Thursday with Democrats offering their own COVID-19 bill as a substitute to replace the only bill on the agenda — the Assembly GOP COVID-19 response bill.
There are now multiple versions of a COVID bill in play — the one from legislative Democrats, the one from Assembly Republicans, which passed the body on a party-line vote on Thursday, and several efforts released by Gov. Tony Evers. The governor’s first bill contained what he hoped to see in a comprehensive COVID package; his second bill contained only measures he said that he, Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu had agreed on — although the Republican leaders accused Evers of pushing ahead without them. Then came the Assembly Republicans’ bill, which Vos said senate Republicans backed until late yesterday when LeMahieu said that wasn’t the case.
In advance of the Assembly session on Thursday, LeMahieu said the Senate would be drafting its own bill and Evers indicated he was strongly leaning toward a veto even if it did come to his desk. “It’s not real,” said Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz in advance of the session. “It’s not going to happen.”
Nevertheless, an hour-long debate began.
Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) spoke for the Democrats, on their bill introduced as a substitute, highlighting that it would provide paid sick leave and hazard pay for frontline health care workers.
“Wisconsinites are relying on us to battle the virus, not each other,” she said, standing for her speech in both a mask and a face shield. (Republicans who control the Assembly have made masks optional. Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August announced on the floor that people who were wearing masks could remove them to speak, but asked that they put them back on afterward.)
“We need to fight for the survival of our small businesses, we need to come alongside our schools and childcare providers, we need fixes to the unemployment system, we need to support our frontline health care workers, and we need to do absolutely everything we can to protect the health and safety of each and every Wisconsinite from COVID-19,” said Vining. “Our amendment does that.”
She highlighted what she described as a critical element of the Democratic bill, which was rejected along party lines. It would have required employers to provide hazard pay to certain health care workers during a public health emergency and required employers to provide at least 15 days of paid medical leave for certain health care workers who contract a communicable disease. “Everyone here is genuine when they thank health care workers for their work and their contributions to fighting this virus,” she added. “But words are not enough.”
Members then took a break from the debate to move to a resolution condemning political violence that passed on a voice vote with what sounded like unanimous agreement.
Vos led the debate on the Assembly Republican bill. His speech, and other Republican representatives’ comments, chastised the Evers administration for a backlog on unemployment claims, saying he was not sure that the backlog had been eliminated as the administration claimed: “There have been critical shortfalls in the way the state of Wisconsin responded.”
Vos’ second criticism against Evers, echoed by other Republicans, was that the rollout of the vaccine is slow
“Unfortunately the administration seems not to take the same level of interest in this topic as other governors have done,” said Vos. He also continued a theme he began in his floor speech after being reelected speaker on Monday — that the Legislature should be the preeminent body in state government.
“The administration was given a lot of tools to be able to manage the pandemic,” said Vos. “But legislative oversight and the ability not to allow one person to make decisions, really is the hallmark of our republic. We don’t want one person … to make unilateral decisions. That is not America.”
He also stressed that no one should be forced to take the vaccine, noting that about 15% of people will probably never take it. The Assembly GOP bill contains a provision mandating that the vaccine cannot be required — in general, by public health or by an employer. “We live in a country where that’s a free choice, he added.
“I hope we will be able to get a 90 unanimous vote today,” concluded Vos, although it was clear there was no way that would happen.
Democrats chose one person to speak on the bill — a new member who is a registered nurse with extensive public health experience.
“After eight months of inaction, we need a bill that’s more comprehensive than the one that’s being debated here today,” said Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield). “We offered common sense solutions but they were rejected. So now we are left with a final proposal that leaves our state’s biggest COVID-19 needs unmet, and … with policies that won’t help us recover.”
In particular, Rodriguez called out the bill for giving legal immunity to businesses whose negligence helps spread the infection and for rewarding “bad actors” — the entities the Republican bill would protect from lawsuits, even if they refused to comply with public health orders.
Speaking in favor of the Assembly Republican COVID bill, Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) announced, “You know what? My 80-plus-year-old grandmother has COVID right now. And you know what’s critically important to her? Her contact with her family.” He argued in favor of the provision allowing “essential visitors” for people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “How dare we even consider passing a bill that doesn’t say you have a right to see your family,” he concluded.
The Assembly GOP bill passed along party lines, with 56 Republicans voting for it, and 34 Democrats voting against it and was sent to the Senate, where unless something changes, it will sit with no action or vote.