Two weeks ago the Republican-led state Senate and Gov. Tony Evers reached a bipartisan compromise on a COVID-19 relief bill, setting aside the controversial elements from a partisan Assembly bill and passing something the governor signaled he was willing to sign.
Tuesday, the Assembly’s Republican majority had that deal in front of them for a vote. Instead of sending it to Evers for his signature, they ripped up the deal, amending the bipartisan bill with measures rejected by Democrats, and sent the Senate back another controversial bill that stands little chance of becoming law.
As this was happening, Senate Republicans took the first step toward killing Evers’ statewide mask requirement, despite pleas from dozens of health care organizations to lead by example and keep the mandate in order to save lives.
In the Assembly, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz began by highlighting the opportunity the body had to get something done to fight COVID-19.
“The fact that we have a compromise, that we have something that passed with bipartisan support that the governor would sign, means that we have the opportunity to come here today to pass that bill,” Hintz said. “The governor could sign it tomorrow. And it could become law.”
That didn’t happen.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — who was caught by surprise when Republican senators led by Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu found bipartisan agreement on a bill rather than approving his caucus’ version — began the session more than two hours late. Assembly Republicans were putting together a third version that brought back a number of the items that had been stripped to forge the bipartisan compromise.
Hintz said shortly before the session was scheduled to begin that no Democrats had seen or heard any details on what Republicans were going to ask them to vote on — it was crafted without any eye toward bipartisanship.
Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) was more blunt: “Vos is behaving like a bully,” he said. “He’s willing to burn the house down to prove his point, even if it means more innocent people may be hurt.”
Having given up a few partisan items, Vos said he was making concessions to the Senate Republican colleagues he had been working with and “hopefully they will accept these amendments.” He even claimed, “we wanted to ultimately get a bill that could be signed.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke was more straightforward about the move toward a more partisan bill: “I authored this amendment to ensure the conservative ideals we know are important to our constituents are being advocated for. We elected officials should fight for what our constituents ask for — that means not voting for an inferior version of this bill.”
The items he added back include a provision that blocks health officers from restricting church gatherings and measures that bar government or employers from requiring a coronavirus vaccine.
Republicans in the Assembly also tacked on an amendment — clearly a partisan dig — giving the Legislature control over future federal funds allocated for pandemic relief, forcing Evers’ administration to ask their permission to spend the money.
The amended bill passed along straight party lines, with 58 Republicans voting yes, 34 Democrats voting no.
Shooting down Evers’ mask mandate
In the Senate, members voted 18-13 to approve Senate Joint Resolution 3, declaring that Evers “had no authority” to declare a new statewide COVID-19 health emergency on Jan. 19. Two Republicans — Sens. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Robert Cowles (R- Green Bay) — crossed over to vote with the Democrats.
If the Assembly concurs — which Vos, during his comments on the Assembly floor, predicted Tuesday it would — the move would end the emergency declaration in Executive Order #104, and along with it, the latest statewide order requiring masks in public.
The author of the resolution, Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), insisted the resolution was not about a mask mandate but instead meant to end overreach by the governor.
The resolution is based on the premise that the emergency declarations and mask orders that Evers has issued since July 30 were extensions of the original COVID-19 emergency declaration that the governor made in March, which expired May 11. State law limits an emergency declaration to 60 days, to be extended only with the Legislature’s approval.
“This is about a continuation of the same emergency order, time and time again, like Groundhog Day, where you can just keep doing it over and over again,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine). “And that is not what’s allowed.”
That same argument underlies a lawsuit against Evers over the subsequent emergency declarations and the mask mandates, which is pending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The Evers administration has defended the emergency declarations as responding to new developments during the continuing pandemic, rather than extensions. The court has not yet indicated when it will rule on the lawsuit.
“The governor has never, in all this time from last year to now, reached out to the legislature and asked for the authorization to continue a mandate on masks,” Nass said. “This is not about whether face masks are good or bad. This is about repeatedly issuing emergency orders, contrary to what the law allows. It’s about the rule of law.”
Nass “says this isn’t about the masks,” retorted Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point). “Then where’s the follow up legislation requiring us to wear a mask here in this state? There isn’t any, because this is about the masks.”
Erpenbach also rejected claims from Nass and others who said Evers had not tried to work with the Legislature. “Gov. Evers talked with the Republican leadership from both houses, more than once,” he added. “You can’t say the governor didn’t try.”
During more than two hours of floor debate, Senate Democrats made note of the most recent COVID-19 statistics. The virus has claimed 5,753 lives as of Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health Services (DHS).
Several Democrats pointed to the support lined up behind the governor’s actions. By the end of the day Tuesday, 24 organizations — most of them representing health care providers — had registered with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to lobby against the resolution and in favor of keeping the mask mandate. No organization had registered against the mask order.
“These are all medically related organizations that are on the front lines of dealing with COVID patients every single day,” said Sen. Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville).
Republicans who spoke in support of the resolution sent mixed signals about masks — at times appearing to question their effectiveness. “We citizens are capable of determining what steps are appropriate to take in our daily lives to guard against COVID, without the heavy hand of government coming down on us,” Nass said.
Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) called the mask order an example of government mandates during the public health crisis that “have been unprecedented limitations on individual freedoms” — and because of that, “our system of government demands the Legislature be involved.”
But Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), blamed Republicans for politicizing mask wearing. “I don’t know why this started — I think we could stop it right now,” said Larson. “Are we going to start saying that taking off your seatbelt is a sign of independence, and therefore flying through a windshield when you get in an accident is the utmost way to exercise your liberty?”
While Kooyenga broke with the Republicans and voted with the Democrats, he declared in the debate that he did so even though he fundamentally agreed with his GOP colleagues that Evers “has not followed the law” or the state Constitution with his emergency declaration.
“There is nothing in this resolution that is inaccurate, in my opinion,” he said. Instead, he explained his vote with Democrats as a means to get kids back in classrooms, saying that was his priority: “My fear on this resolution is that people in our state will use the actions of this chamber to say, ‘Well, there’s another reason we can’t open our schools.’”
In addition, he said, health care workers and medical institutions in his suburban Milwaukee district — the Medical College of Wisconsin, Froedtert Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin — have all called for maintaining the mandate. “I’m going to stand with the health care providers in my district,” he said.
Several Democrats returned again and again to the fact that, after passing the state’s only COVID-19 relief bill to date on April 15, 2020, Republican leaders in both the Senate and the Assembly repeatedly criticized the Evers administration’s handling of the pandemic, but refused to call the Legislature back into session to take up legislation of any kind.
“Please bring forward legislation that deals with the issues our health care providers are asking for,” Ringhand told Republicans after she had read aloud statements from health care workers who decried the effort to end the mask order. “That’s one of the vital issues we need to address. I have seen nothing in the last 10 months to deal with that. Let’s please get to work.”
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) alluded to the Senate’s Jan. 12 COVID legislation compromise that, while the Senate was debating Tuesday afternoon, was undergoing a partisan rewrite in the Assembly.
“Instead of doing this particular resolution or proceeding in this effort,” she asked, “why are we not seeing each house’s leaders in the same party hammering out the differences that cause two COVID packages to pass, like two ships in the night?”
The state Senate and Assembly plan to reconvene Thursday.