COVID relief bill continues to elude Wisconsin Legislature

By: and - January 29, 2021 6:28 am

Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison 10-22-2012, northeast (East Washington) entrance, on a misty night in October by Richard Hurd via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Over the course of five chaotic hours on Thursday, Republicans in the Senate turned their backs on their own compromise COVID-19 legislation, while a controversial move to block Gov. Tony Evers’ authority to declare health emergencies screeched to a halt in the Assembly.

The last minute pivot in the Assembly meant that the state’s current mask mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19 remains in place — for now.

What lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had expected to be a swift death blow to the requirement was sidelined after legislators learned that canceling the governor’s latest pandemic health emergency would jeopardize $49 million in federal food aid that was tied to having an emergency declaration in place.

So at the close of legislative business on Thursday, here’s where things stand:

  • The statewide mask requirement remains in effect while Republicans research if there is a way to pass it without losing federal money. 
  • The Senate GOP COVID response bill that Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu worked out with Evers and won bipartisan approval two weeks ago is dead.
  • LeMahieu caved in his standoff with Speaker Robin Vos and instead took up the partisan COVID bill with the Assembly’s newly restored provisions that Democrats strongly opposed.
  • The Senate then added a provision to Vos’ partisan bill saying Evers could declare a public health emergency, but only for the sake of accepting federal funds.
  • The Senate has adjourned until Feb.16, but the Assembly remains in a recessed session, and Vos said it will likely convene next week to vote on the mask mandate and the partisan COVID bill.

Democrats stated that the only reason for tacking on that amendment in the Senate was so Republicans could put Evers in a Catch-22 situation. He could sign the GOP COVID bill with its provisions that violate public health recommendations, or be trapped into Republicans blaming him for losing $49 million in FoodShare money for hungry displaced workers and families if he vetoes the measure.

The COVID bill, the first bill of the session which began on Jan. 4, has been passed back and forth between the Senate and Assembly, where various amendments have been added and eliminated, appeared too mired in politics to become law.

Senate Democratic leader Janet Bewley said the GOP senators “folded” on Thursday’s vote under pressure from Assembly Republicans. She expressed disappointment that what had started out as an example of productive bipartisanship was cast aside when the Assembly GOP refused to accept the compromise.

“Two weeks ago, the senate majority leader and the governor came to a compromise on a COVID-19 bill that was agreeable to everyone,” said Bewley. “Instead of engaging in good faith negotiations, Republicans have once again turned to theatrics, and have re-introduced amendments to the legislation, which guarantees it will be vetoed. With Wisconsin recording 6,306 deaths from COVID-19, legislators’ only goal should be stopping the spread of this disease.”

Speaker Robin Vos via WisPolitics event on Zoom 1/28/21
Speaker Robin Vos via WisPolitics event on Zoom 1/28/21

Vos had three separate venues on Thursday to deliver his take on the day’s legislative action — a press conference, a speech on the Assembly floor and an appearance at a WisPolitics virtual event. At all of them he repeatedly placed the blame on Evers for everything from vaccine availability and administration to unemployment insurance delays and even Foxconn not meeting its hiring goals.

In many cases, he accused Evers of overstepping his authority — including implementation of the mask requirement and public health order.

Other times he said Evers failed to lead. For example, when Vos was asked why the Legislature refused to come into a special session to take up bills Evers had put forward to alleviate the UI benefit delays.

“The way our constitutional system is envisioned, the governor is the person who usually leads. It is not usually the Legislature,” said Vos. “But we’ve seen a governor who really hasn’t led in many ways. We’ve seen a lot of deferral, basically excuse making, not a lot of decisions being made. Even look at this vaccine rollout, where we’re kind of waiting for a committee of bureaucrats to tell us what the order is.”

Vos followed the string of criticism of Evers saying he would “be happy to be part of his inner circle and he could ask my advice.”

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said in a statement that “Wisconsin Republicans have shown once again that power and politics are their only significant concerns.” In reaction to the Senate abandoning the bipartisan bill to pass the GOP Assembly version of AB1, the COVID bill, Larson, on Twitter, echoed a common criticism from Vos’ opponents, including some in his own party, that his frequent attacks on Evers come from his desire to have that authority: 

“Senate Republicans abandoned their compromise with @GovEvers and have bowed to Cosplay Governor Robin Vos by passing his version of AB1. As it will most definitely be vetoed, they have managed to add to their 9-month streak of doing nothing productive in spectacular fashion.”

Vaccine measures

 While Vos put the resolution to kill the health emergency and mask mandate on hold, the Assembly did proceed on two bills, both related to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

One was uncontroversial: adding pharmacy technicians and pharmacy students who have had appropriate training to the list of health care personnel authorized to deliver the vaccine. It passed overwhelmingly with one dissent.

Before getting to that bill, however, the Assembly debated another bill that is likely to face a veto if the Senate takes it up and approves it.

Despite widespread agreement that the principal reason for the state’s slow rollout of the vaccine has been a supply shortage from the federal government, the bill would step up the timeline for making the shot available to all Wisconsin adults.

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The legislation would require DHS to make the vaccine available to everyone age 60 or older immediately, and to everyone else no later than March 15. This week, DHS began offering the vaccine to people age 65 and older — about 700,000 Wisconsin residents.

At the rate the state has been receiving vaccine doses — about 70,000 a week — it could be March 15 or later before all people in the 65-plus group can be vaccinated.

“Every single state in the country, including Wisconsin, is struggling with a supply issue,” said Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), leader of the Assembly Democrats, describing the bill as a political game. “Having the Legislature sell the public on legislation that tells people that they are going to be eligible, is only setting them up for disappointment … because eligibility is not the same as availability.”

Rep. Lisa Subeck

“But we cannot get shots in the people’s arms any faster, unless we have the shots to put in their arms,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison). “This bill doesn’t solve the problem that we have. … It adds more red tape. It adds more confusion … it makes administration of this vaccine all the harder.”

The legislation also requires DHS to set up an online sign-up system for the vaccine. DHS officials have told the Legislature that they are already in the process of working with Microsoft to create such a system.

“Today should be a unanimous vote, because it deserves a unanimous rebuke for the administration’s response for vaccination — so today we can take a step forward,” Vos said in a floor speech before the vote.

Hintz scoffed at Vos’ characterization of the bill and of the current vaccine distribution program.

“You can lower the age and say, ‘Hey you guys are eligible!’” Hintz said. “And then someone’s gonna be like, ‘Why can’t I get vaccinated?’ It’s like — because there aren’t enough vaccines!”

The bill, he charged, was orchestrated as a political attack on the governor. “It’s not real,” Hintz said. “It doesn’t make any more vaccines appear. It doesn’t address the problem that exists.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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