Evers vetoes COVID-19 bill, calling rejected compromise a ‘missed opportunity’

GOP leaders lash back; Assembly Dems offer mask mandate legislation

Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)
Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)

A month of sparring over new COVID-19 response legislation concluded Friday with Gov. Tony Evers, as widely expected, vetoing the Legislature’s first bill since April to address the pandemic.

Evers acted shortly after the state Senate, voting along party lines, approved an amendment to the bill that the Assembly inserted on Thursday that added yet another partisan ploy to an already partisan bill. The amendment itself had little to do with the overall measure, but the Senate vote was the final step needed to send the doomed legislation to the governor.

Waiting in the wings, meanwhile, is a Democratic proposal unveiled Friday morning that proposes to resolve another tussle — this one over the governor’s power to declare a health emergency and impose a statewide mask mandate.

The proposal follows a two-week drama that peaked Thursday afternoon, when the Assembly canceled Evers’ most recent health emergency and mask mandate. Evers almost immediately declared a new health emergency and mask mandate minutes later.

So with Friday’s veto, this is where things stood at the end of a week of conflict between the governor and Legislature’s GOP majority in Wisconsin’s battle against the coronavirus and the devastation it has left, both to public health and to the economy:

  • The only Wisconsin legislation that is in effect addressing the pandemic remains the bill passed April 15 to implement the national Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was enacted last spring.
  • Wisconsin remains under a health emergency, declared anew Thursday by Evers, and retains a statewide requirement for masks in indoor public places.
  • Republican lawmakers remain at odds with the governor over whether that order is legal, while Democrats in the Legislature — who side with the governor — are offering legislation that they argue should end that dispute by sending the mask mandate through the traditional lawmaking process, if the Republican’s concern is really the governor’s power.

In his veto message on the COVID-19 bill — AB-1 — Evers said that in its final form it contained provisions “that will make it more challenging to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. Instead, AB-1 takes away existing tools available to public health officials and employers.”

Sen. Devin LeMahieu at COVID-19 bill public hearing 1/11/21
Sen. Devin LeMahieu at COVID-19 bill public hearing 1/11/21

Evers lamented the bill’s descent from compromise legislation that passed the Senate three-and-a-half weeks ago to the form in which it arrived at his desk on Friday.

Had he been given the Senate’s original compromise version that passed, “I would be signing it today,” Evers stated. The Assembly rewrite of that bill, he said, “represents a missed opportunity for meaningful compromise and the continued partisan obstruction that has plagued our state’s response to this pandemic from the beginning.”

Evers singled out in particular language added in the Assembly that would have blocked state and local public health officials from closing or limiting gatherings in houses of worship to combat outbreaks of COVID-19 and restricted local public health officials from imposing capacity restrictions on businesses. He also criticized language prohibiting employers from requiring their employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Assembly added those provisions to what had been the compromise version of the bill, along with an amendment that would give the Legislature veto power over how the governor would spend any new federal aid in response to the pandemic, before passing it along party lines on Jan. 26. It was clear as they did it that doing so would likely draw a veto.

In vetoing the legislation, Evers acknowledged that he was passing up items in it that “moved Wisconsin forward” — citing in particular a measure that would continue to suspend the state’s one-week waiting period for people who file for unemployment benefits.

That one-week waiting period provision in the bill was a condition for the state to qualify for supplemental federal unemployment insurance payments.

In a joint statement criticizing Evers’ veto, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) singled out the expected loss of that federal benefit, valued at $6.5 million to the state according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Their statement tied that projected loss to the larger problems with unemployment claims that created a heavy backlog as the system was overwhelmed by skyrocketing job losses during the pandemic. And it signals that the ongoing rhetorical battle will continue over whether the administration or Republicans in the legislature should shoulder more of the blame.

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

Also lost with the vetoed bill is a measure that would have absolved businesses and organizations from liability if employees or customers allege they’re responsible for exposing them to the coronavirus.

Although opponents said the liability immunity language could lead to negligence that would expose more people to the virus, they also said it was unnecessary. But the Senate’s ability to preserve a slightly softened version of the immunity provision had been a highlight of the bill that Evers had agreed to sign to show his willingness to compromise.

The final passage of the bill and Evers’ veto intersected Friday with continued fallout from Thursday’s clash over the governor’s health emergency powers.

One point of intersection was the COVID-19 bill itself.

After the state Senate on Jan. 26 passed a resolution to immediately end the most recent health emergency and mask mandate, lawmakers learned that ending the emergency would cut off $49 million in Food Share funds from the federal government that was contingent on a health emergency being in place.

To avoid that outcome, on Jan. 28 the Senate, before passing the Assembly version of the COVID-19 bill, added an amendment granting the governor a limited authority to declare an emergency for the purposes of collecting federal aid. That amendment forced the bill back to the Assembly, where Vos, concerned that it would unintentionally leave the executive branch with more power, rewrote it further to make tighter restrictions on the governor.

The Assembly adopted that amendment Thursday, sending the bill back to the Senate, which approved the Assembly amendment on Friday.

As events played out on Thursday, however — with Evers declaring a new health emergency after the earlier one was canceled — the amendment may have been superfluous to the cause of protecting the Food Share aid.

Nevertheless, in their joint statement responding to the veto, Vos and LeMahieu pointed to that provision as another reason to fault Evers for not signing the bill — alluding to the possibility that the Wisconsin Supreme Court might yet enter the dispute over Evers’ health emergency powers.

“It is sad that Gov. Evers is playing games at the expense of disadvantaged people by putting $50 million in food assistance benefits in jeopardy should the court eliminate the unlawful public health emergency,” the Republican leaders declared.

Another point of intersection came from Democrats in the Legislature, who on Friday morning promoted their draft bill for a statewide mask order.

The proposed legislation is a direct challenge to the Republicans who voted to strike down the health emergency and mask order, said Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), in an online news conference.

“It wasn’t about the masks. Over and over we heard that refrain,’” Spreitzer said, recapping what multiple GOP lawmakers had said in voting to end the emergency order, both in the Assembly on Thursday and in the Senate on Jan. 26.

“Well, I don’t buy that,” he continued. “But if that’s what Republicans are saying, fine, no more excuses about process, no more complaints about Gov. Evers trying to protect Wisconsinites from this deadly virus. If you don’t want the governor to do this by emergency order, then pass the bill and do it that way. And so we’re going to give our Republican colleagues the opportunity to do exactly that.”

The bill would create a statewide mask mandate that would be in place as long as there is a national emergency from the pandemic, Spreitzer said.

Democratic lawmakers are circulating the draft seeking cosponsors, with a deadline of noon on Monday.

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.