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Tuesday, January 26, 2021
<p>Assembly Speaker Robin Vos unveiled legislation Wednesday, while the Senate proposed to activate existing state funding.</p>

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos unveiled legislation Wednesday, while the Senate proposed to activate existing state funding.

Wisconsin lawmakers fractured over COVID-19 relief

Assembly Republicans unveiled new COVID-19 legislation Tuesday that did not gain immediate support among Senate Republicans and prompted criticism from Democrats. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, announced the plan, which among other provisions, would require state employees to return to work by Jan. 31, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis. Employees could provide a doctor’s note for an exemption until two months after a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available. The provision does not apply to UW system employees.

The plan would also require teachers to instruct students from school buildings unless they submit an exemption. If passed,  it would require a two-thirds vote from school boards to extend virtual instruction, which would only last for two weeks at a time, and require payments of $371 pack to parents if instruction is virtual for half of the semester. 

“Speaker Vos is willing to gamble with the lives of hardworking Wisconsinites in a brazen attempt to score political points. While essential workers protect our children and show up to staff prisons, mental health facilities and hospitals, the Republican caucus went missing in action,” Executive Director of AFSCME Wisconsin Patrick Wycoff said in a press release. AFSCME Wisconsin is a union that represents public employees at the state, county and municipal level.

The proposal would also add significant powers to the Republican-controlled state budget committee, which saw a leadership shakeup after its co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, resigned Tuesday. It requires the state Department of Health Services to submit a COVID-19 distribution plan to the committee, which it could block, and gives the committee oversight over federal COVID-19 funding. 

The proposal would also require UW System schools to offer students opportunities to gain course credit if they “assist Wisconsin in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” through eligible volunteer or work activities. 

The package also seeks to double the number of public health workers responding to the pandemic, expand at-home rapid antigen tests and require the Department of Workforce Development to eliminate the backlog of unemployment insurance claims.  

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, called the bill “politically driven” in a statement Tuesday. 

“There are so many extremely politically divisive items in this legislation at a time when we need the opposite. Not only do Wisconsin Republicans not want to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, they want to put into law limits on local governments in their ability to respond in the way that works for their community,” Hintz said

Competing proposals

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu, R-Oostburg, unveiled a separate, less extensive Senate proposal Wednesday seeking to tap the state’s medical assistance fund surplus to maintain the DHS’ response to COVID-19. 

“The transfer of surplus funds presents an opportunity to act immediately and work together with the Governor on a unified, effective response to our shared hardship,” LaMahieu said in a press release

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Evers proposed his own COVID-19 package two weeks ago, which is more expensive than Vos’ package and would prohibit evictions, a provision unlikely to pass in the Assembly.  

Evers, Vos and LaMahieu virtually met again Tuesday, two weeks after they met to discuss relief. The Republican-controlled legislature has not passed legislation since April. In a media briefing Tuesday, Evers said he wants the legislature to convene in mid-December rather than waiting for the new session to begin in January. 

In a press release, Vos said Assembly Republicans are “ready to act” before the end of the year, when CARES Act funding expires, and added that Wisconsin needs a “comprehensive response” to the pandemic. 

However, LaMahieu said that among Senate Republicans “there’s pretty broad support for not coming in,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. He also told the AP that he has not yet studied Vos’ proposals and plans to meet with Evers again Thursday. 

Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said “it’s unfortunate that Republicans can’t even agree among themselves on a plan for our state’s response to this pandemic.”

Bipartisan lawmakers urge caution

On the same day Evers and legislative leaders met to discuss relief legislation, Wisconsin reported a single-day record of 107 deaths among confirmed COVID-19 cases. New cases have dropped in recent days, but testing also decreased over the holiday weekend. Wisconsin health officials are expecting a post-Thanksgiving surge in the coming weeks.

Wisconsin lawmakers of both parties appeared in a “Stop the COVID Spread!” coalition ad urging Wisconsinites to stay safe by wearing masks, social distancing and following other precautions. 

The ad features both Assembly Speaker Vos and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. Pocan has pushed for more contact tracing and for the legislature to convene to pass Evers’ mask order, while Vos’ proposal does not mention masks and state Republicans have repeatedly challenged Evers’ efforts to mitigate the spread. 

A bipartisan group of three lawmakers representing southwestern Wisconsin counties issued a joint statement Tuesday, urging people to take precautions seriously. Case activity levels remain critically high in that region of the state. 

“We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Across the state our hospitals are filling up or are already full, and in some cases, are sending sick people home to make room for the sickest of the sick,” the three lawmakers wrote. “In addition, our medical staff are overburdened, stretched too thin, facing their own quarantines or are so burned out that they cannot continue to work.”

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Hope Karnopp

state news writer

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