The Wisconsin Senate unanimously approved Wisconsin’s COVID-19 relief bill Wednesday, 32-0, sending it to Gov. Tony Evers, who signed it hours later.
The bill, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Assembly on Tuesday, enables the state to take advantage of $2 billion in federal money to supplement its Medicaid program amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It also eliminates the state’s one-week waiting period for residents to receive unemployment benefits for anyone who applies between March 2020 and Feb. 7, 2021. Restrictions and personal liability for healthcare workers are also eased under the bill, along with provisions to help counties and municipalities defer property tax payments. Unlike the federal COVID-19 relief bill, it does not give any additional payments or aid to individuals.
“We put this bill together as a reaction to the legislation recently passed by Congress. It combined aspects from the governor’s proposal with input from both parties of the Legislature. This legislation is important to the history of our state as we came together to respond to the crisis created by COVID-19,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
Both political parties acknowledged the bill was imperfect, but a necessary first step to more effectively respond to the pandemic on the state level. Legislative leaders and Gov. Evers said more bills are likely.
Evers said Wednesday he remains concerned about what the legislation, now 2019 Wisconsin Act 185, lacks, including workers compensation and hazard pay protections for some health care workers.
"This bill is finally a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done," Evers said in a statement shortly before signing it. “The bill I will sign falls short of what is needed to address the magnitude and gravity of what our state is facing, but I am not willing to delay our state’s response to this crisis."
Like the Assembly, which met virtually to approve the legislation, most Senators participated remotely on Wednesday. Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, were the only two Senators present in the Capito hearing room where the session occurred, seated six feet apart. Fifteen other staff members were present, but the remaining senators participated via Skype with an electronic vote.
The bill also makes $75 million available for the state’s Department of Administration to use for COVID-19 response, but requires the executive branch to first request the money, which the Legislature’s budget writing committee can approve. The money is available up to three months after the state’s public health emergency declaration ends.
Unlike in-person legislative sessions, where senators’ objections and commentary are often loudly voiced, interrupting others, the virtual format afforded Roth, who presided over the session, the ability to instantly mute members who wanted to otherwise offer an opinion on the motion at hand.
Senate Democrats proposed three expansive amendments to the bill that would provide more funding for a variety of programs and providers, adapt election rules to the pandemic. It also would have extended provisions in the relief bill if Evers extends the statewide public health emergency order or issues a new one because of the coronavirus.
Republicans struck down each one, arguing that the bill is intended to be a good first step. Leadership from both parties said it included good things but was imperfect.
“This bill is imperfect and it might be the first bill of a number that we have to pass in the Legislature,” Fitzgerald said. “It is timely and I think it’s been well thought out and I think it will help.”
Democrats lamented that it did not go far enough, noting that it took 30 days for the Legislature to come up with a deal and overcome technical challenges in order to convene and doesn’t give any direct aid to individuals in the state.
“That’s too long. There is no excuse for that,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.
Shilling said the bill was disappointing and too limited. She praised Evers’ original plan as more comprehensive, providing more immediate relief to entities that need it.
“I know some of this will be broad but yes we will use our federal dollars first and draw those down ... before looking to our own state revenue dollars.”
This story has been updated to reflect the final Senate vote count and Gov. Evers' signing of the bill later Wednesday afternoon.