Assembly Republicans kicked off the 2021-22 legislative session with a package of bills in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they don’t look much like what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had in mind after proposing a “compromise bill” two weeks ago aimed at garnering bipartisan support.
The GOP proposals, unveiled as members of the Legislature were inaugurated Monday afternoon, would bar mandatory vaccinations, prevent local health officers from issuing coronavirus restrictions for more than two weeks without other approval, protect businesses from lawsuits seeking damages for COVID-19 exposure, temporarily relax restrictions for K-12 students seeking open enrollment at another school district and require two-thirds approval by school boards in order for schools to offer virtual instruction.
Other measures would grant the GOP-led Legislature authority over how future federal aid dollars are spent — something Evers has adamantly opposed. And they would prohibit the Department of Health Services from limiting public gatherings at churches and allow residents at long-term care facilities one visitor.
“We can’t allow an unelected bureaucrat to rule over communities like a dictator, picking and choosing what businesses should fail or forcing schools to be virtual,” Vos said, in reference to efforts last year by DHS Secretary Andrea Palm to mitigate spread of the coronavirus.
The legislation would also require the Department of Workforce Development to develop a plan within a month to address a backlog of unemployment insurance claims and extend until March 14 the suspension of the one-week waiting period for UI benefits.
The package does contain some measures in the compromise bill proposed by the governor, including allowing the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee to transfer $100 million in certain appropriations for COVID-19 expenses. The bill, like Evers’ proposal, also allows the coverage of vaccinations under SeniorCare.
But the GOP package would require the governor to submit to the budget committee any future plans for spending of federal COVID-19 dollars, a proposal Evers has opposed.
The Assembly Committee on Health is set to hold a hearing and vote on the bill Tuesday, with a full Assembly vote potentially this week. It’s unclear whether the Senate will take up the measures, but Vos said Senate Republicans support the package.
In a letter to lawmakers Monday, Evers asked for “urgent consideration and support of legislation to aid in our state’s continued response to COVID-19.” Evers specifically called for a pared-down version of pandemic-related bills he unveiled almost two weeks ago — which includes several items both sides have proposed.
“Gov. Evers spent weeks working across the aisle on a bipartisan bill to respond to this pandemic,” Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that instead of passing the COVID compromise the governor and Republican leaders worked on together, Republicans now plan to move ahead with their own legislation. Wisconsinites deserve legislators who will put politics aside and work together to do what’s best for the people of our state.”
Evers’ proposal includes Assembly GOP proposals like eliminating a backlog of unemployment claims, expanding call center hours and giving the budget committee transfer over $100 million for appropriations.
Assembly Republicans had originally proposed a $100 million package, compared with a $541 million proposal from Evers in November. The bill also drops some items Republicans have said they would reject, such as suspending the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, waiving in-person appearance requirements and preventing people from being evicted from their homes.
A second bill proposed by Evers would extend measures passed in April to suspend the one-week waiting period and work search requirements for unemployment benefits and a waiver of student assessments. Both Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, expressed a lack of support for both measures last month.
The Legislature last convened on COVID-19-related measures back in April.
“It would be inexplicable after more than 260 days of inaction for any other issue or topic to be taken up by the legislature prior to passing a bill to address COVID-19 — especially one on which we’ve already been able to find common ground,” Evers said.
Democrats weigh in
Senate and Assembly Democrats unveiled their own $466 million COVID-19 response package Monday, which includes the Evers proposals. The package also would require hospitals to pay certain health care workers more during a public health emergency and mandate that health care facilities provide at least 15 days of paid medical leave for workers who get COVID-19.
The bill includes funding for community COVID-19 testing sites and supplies, expansion of state and local contact tracing, hospital surge capacity support and vaccine distribution. It would also pump more funding into initiatives for rental assistance, food security, child care and legislative assistance to hospitals.
In addition, the package includes a measure Republicans have firmly opposed in previous budget cycles: accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid in the state, a move that Democrats say would free up more dollars to pay for the COVID-19 response. Democrats have also said the state’s more precarious financial situation may sway Republicans who have previously opposed the measure.
“We aren’t doing pie-in-the-sky stuff,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. “We recognize that a lot of the things that we would like to do would require the kind of resources that only the federal government can provide. But we also know that the types of interventions and policies that we’re putting forth here today are needed now.”
Hintz said the package is “revenue neutral,” meaning it wouldn’t require raising new taxes to pay for the programs.
On top of disagreements over the legislative response to COVID-19, Democrats and Republicans have been sparring over what sort of health and safety protocols will be put in place in the Legislature to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Following the inauguration Monday, Republicans in the Senate and Assembly passed a joint resolution that would open the Capitol to the public. However, the resolution is unlikely to have any effect, as Evers’ Department of Administration controls much of the building.
Republicans have opted for in-person floor sessions and committee hearings in the Assembly, to the objection of many Democrats who are worried about the spread of COVID-19 and want such proceedings to be conducted online.
While Republicans who lead the Assembly have said masks are encouraged during the two-year session, face coverings will not be required. On Monday, use of masks was sporadic in both chambers, with some Republican lawmakers wearing face coverings at times while others did not.
Assembly Democrats were already sworn in online by Evers last week and none attended Monday’s inauguration.
“The length of time that you’re in a room with somebody, mask or no mask, the risk of both severity and of getting infected are higher,” Hintz said. “The fact that we don’t have a guarantee that people are going to be wearing masks makes that even worse.”
Some Democrats attended the inauguration ceremony in the Senate on Monday and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, said for future committee meetings, his Democratic colleagues plan to participate either in person or remotely, something Senate rules allow.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.