The state Assembly passed a fast-tracked pandemic relief bill on Thursday, but with opposition from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, the bill appears to be going nowhere as Wisconsin suprasses 5,000 COVID-19 deaths.
The Assembly voted 56-34 along party lines in favor of the Republican-authored bill. Among other provisions, the bill includes establishing civil liability exemptions for businesses, prohibiting DHS from closing places of worship, extending the suspension of a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits until March 14 and authorizing first and second-year pharmacy students to administer vaccines. The bill would also give the legislature oversight of federal COVID-19 funding.
Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers, have argued for sick leave for frontline workers and taking up Medicaid expansion, but these provisions were not included in the bill. Republicans voted down the Democratic proposal, which was offered as an amendment.
“We offered common-sense solutions, but they were rejected,” Rep. Sara Rodriguez, D-Brookfield, said. “So now we are left with a final proposal that leaves our state’s biggest COVID-19 needs unmet and instead leaves us with policies that won’t help us recover.”
Democratic concerns were echoed by health care workers’ union SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, which voiced frustration with Republican lawmakers in a statement Friday.
“The number one job of elected officials is to look out for the health, safety and economic wellbeing of the people,” SEIU President Ramon Argandona said. “It is outrageous to see Republican lawmakers treating this crisis and our lives as a political game where they can score points.”
The Assembly bill faces opposition from within the Republican party as well. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Senate Republicans supported the bill when it was announced on Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said that that was “not the case,” according to the AP.
The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing Monday to amend the Assembly bill and pass an amended package on Tuesday, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, also spoke out against the Assembly bill Thursday. In a press release, Nass critiqued the bill for not doing enough to limit government power and said he would only support a bill which ensured a “reopening” of state government and prioritized giving K-12 state funds to schools providing in-person education.
"We should not rush to pass a feel-good bill for politicians or special interests," said Nass. "Instead, we should continue working to get a bill that meets the needs of families and protects the civil liberties of our constituents."
Disagreement on COVID-19 relief came as state health officials reported an additional 3,791 confirmed cases and 40 deaths in Wisconsin on Thursday, adding to the state’s over 5,000 deaths from COVID-19 and over half a million confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
Some Republican state legislators refused to keep their masks on when speaking on Thursday, while Democrats were critical that there was no option to vote on the bill virtually. Rep. Deb Andraca, D-Whitefish Bay, took to Tik Tok to show the PPE she wore to “vote, in person, on a bill that will most likely be ignored by the State Senate and vetoed by the governor.”
The state legislature has not passed COVID-19 relief since April. While talks between state Democratic and Republican leaders restarted in November, lawmakers again appear fractured over additional relief amid the ongoing pandemic.