After months of inaction to address the COVID-19 crisis in Wisconsin, Senate Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers have reached a deal on a a slimmed-down COVID-19 plan.
But that legislation, which amended a bill Assembly Republicans previously signed off on, could face roadblocks in that chamber after one GOP leader signaled his disapproval of the changes.
The framework was approved by the Senate with bipartisan support Tuesday, scraps limitations on local health officials' authority to combat the virus and schools' ability to convene virtually. It now heads back to the state Assembly, which less than a week ago had moved to approve those provisions and others as part of a sweeping plan to address the coronavirus.
Though Evers has previously expressed his preference for an entirely different plan, the first-term executive shortly after the vote praised Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, called the legislation "a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic" and urged the Assembly to take it up as amended "without delay."
“I’ve been grateful to work together with [LeMahieu] to find common ground and pass a bill on COVID-19 that reflects a good faith effort in compromise and bipartisanship," Evers said in the statement, which didn't mention Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
LeMahieu, speaking about the bill this week, said the changes he proposed to the Assembly Republican plan were an effort to guarantee Evers would sign it, noting many of the provisions are ones that have had the governor's support before.
In a statement after the vote, the Oostburg Republican committed to opening schools, lifting gathering bans and limiting "the powers of local bureaucrats to shut down churches and main street businesses," adding: "We remain committed to these principles and committed to ensuring our state’s best days lie ahead.”
Before the legislation can get to Evers' desk, the same version of the bill has to be approved by houses. A spokeswoman for Vos didn't immediately return a request for comment, but Majority Leader Jim Steineke knocked the plan and didn't commit to passing it, saying members "will continue to advocate for the priorities of our constituents over the next few weeks as we move towards a response to the Senate’s actions."
In the meantime, though, the changes to the bill, which include tossing out provisions that would bar mandatory vaccinations against the virus as a condition of employment and give the Legislature oversight of the distribution of federal funds that are allocated to Wisconsin related to combating COVID-19, drew the ire of one of LeMahieu's members.
Sen. Steve Nass, one of the more conservative members of a caucus that ranges from ideologically conservative to moderate, criticized the legislation as "weak and ineffective" and said the new version seeks to "placate" Evers.
"The State Senate will take up a bill that fails to address most of the pressing issues weighing on the citizens of this state regarding Covid-19," the Whitewater Republican said in a statement Monday announcing he would oppose the language. "The Senate amendment also strips from the Assembly bill a popular prohibition on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations."
Nass was the only Republican senator of the 20 currently seated to oppose the substitute amendment on the floor, which passed on a 29-2 vote. He was joined by Milwaukee Democratic Sen. Chris Larson. Meanwhile, the bill itself cleared the chamber via voice vote.
In addition to those changes, the Senate version wouldn't prevent the Department of Health Services and local health officials from barring gatherings in places of worship, nor would it give dentists the go-ahead to administer COVID-19 and flu vaccines.
Before signing off on both of those measures, the chamber approved a Republican change to the amendment via voice vote that, among other things, tightened up a provision to provide liability protection for businesses, associations, schools, employers, workers and others tied to any COVID-19-related claims.
They also voted 20-11 to dismiss a Democratic amendment that would accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars, bar evictions and foreclosures, pause student assessments for the 2020-2021 school year and more.
The COVID legislation, if it reaches Evers' desk and is signed into law, would be just the second enacted in response to the crisis in Wisconsin. It was first announced by Vos last week Monday. It was then fast-tracked through the chamber, where it cleared an Assembly committee Tuesday and the full body on Thursday.
Though the Rochester Republican had said the measure had support from Republicans in both chambers, it became clear ahead of the floor vote that Senate GOP members weren't on board. Though Vos attempted to address those concerns with some last-minute changes, the Senate a day later announced it would be unveiling its own substitute amendment.
That substitute amendment, unveiled this week, was approved by a Senate committee Monday, paving the pay for the Tuesday floor session.