State Republicans are fast-tracking COVID-19 legislation that aims to provide relief for residents hit hard by the pandemic but would also make it harder to close schools because of the coronavirus and hamstring Gov. Tony Evers’ ability to spend federal coronavirus relief money — provisions that could lead the Democratic governor to veto the entire package.
The 44-item package passed the Assembly Health Committee along party lines Tuesday, with Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, allowed to participate in the public hearing by phone because of his physical disability. All other Democratic members, who participated in the eventual vote, did not attend the hearing because online participation was not allowed. The hearing was held in a large room in the Capitol and several GOP members who attended did not wear face coverings when speaking.
The Assembly, where Republicans hold a 60-38 majority, plans to vote on the bill Thursday. It’s unclear when the GOP-led Senate might vote on the measure, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Monday that Senate Republicans support the bill.
Vos described the package as “a good-faith effort to compromise with Gov. Evers in order to get a bill to his desk that he will sign.”
Evers said he was “disappointed” by the GOP proposal, which was unveiled on Monday as the Assembly kicked off the 2021-22 legislative session. The governor said he had not yet reviewed the entire package, but said there are items he “may have trouble with.”
“I haven’t had a chance to look at the final bill, but if it involves some of the ones I absolutely couldn’t agree to, the likelihood of a veto is probably pretty strong,” Evers said.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, did not respond to a request for comment.
Two weeks ago, Evers proposed COVID-19 legislation based on weeks of discussion between his office and Republican legislative leaders. Dubbed a “compromise” by the governor, the package was aimed at securing bipartisan support. Evers again asked that Republicans make the bill their first legislative action this year.
The Legislature had not convened on coronavirus-related measures since April.
Republicans countered with their own legislative package, which includes several proposals on the governor’s list, such as granting the GOP-led budget committee the ability to spend up to $100 million on COVID-19-related expenses, extending the waiver of the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment claims and a pledge to address the state’s unemployment claim backlog.
The GOP package also includes what Evers has referred to in the past as “poison pills” that run counter to previous discussions among elected leaders and could tank the entire proposal. Such measures include preventing local health officers from issuing coronavirus restrictions for more than two weeks without additional approval and requiring two-thirds approval by school boards to offer online-only instruction.
Another measure would grant the GOP-led Legislature authority over how future federal aid dollars are spent through June 30 — something Evers has strongly opposed. At the same time, Vos said Tuesday a GOP proposal to give the Legislature authority over the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was dropped because it was unlikely to receive support from Evers.
As the public hearing closed, committee chairperson Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, criticized Democratic members for not spending “one minute” physically in the hearing. Later, Anderson, who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, said he was “hurt” by Sanfelippo’s comments and the GOP’s refusal to allow other lawmakers to participate remotely out of concerns for their health.
In a tweet, Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said Assembly Republicans were “willing to risk the lives of staff, the public and legislators. Democrats introduced a plan that gets serious about addressing COVID-19, yet Republicans are determined to ram through their divisive bill that fails to address the problems we face.”
Senate and Assembly Democrats unveiled their own $466 million package Monday. It includes Evers’ proposals, along with 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 provide funding for rental assistance, food security, child care and hospitals.
The Republican bill received praise and opposition during the public hearing Tuesday.
Representatives with groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association said the bill offers much-needed liability protections for businesses that worry they could be sued by people claiming to have contracted COVID-19 in their businesses.
Steve Baas, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said the protections would help prevent a “litigation epidemic” following the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“What this does is in the context of this unique situation we’re in right now with this unique virus. It allows some protections and some certainty that is very important given the amount of uncertainly that surrounds both this virus and the reactions, regulations and measures taken to address this virus,” Baas said.
But Madison attorney and Wisconsin Association for Justice liaison Heath Straka cautioned that the legislation could discourage business owners from following safe practices and protect “bad actors.” He added that so far, not a single coronavirus-related liability lawsuit has been brought against a Wisconsin business since the pandemic began, as such actions are difficult to prove.
“If we want to stop the overflow to our hospitals, we need to protect our businesses, and you protect businesses by not giving them broad immunity so that bad actors can do what they want at the expense of the good business actors,” Straka said. “You carve out legislation that makes sure that we aren’t picking winners and losers.”
Health groups such as the Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, and Wisconsin Public Health Association also oppose the bill.
State Journal reporter Riley Vetterkind contributed to this report.