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Legislature plans to meet next week on COVID-19 response legislation
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LEGISLATURE

Legislature plans to meet next week on COVID-19 response legislation

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The GOP-led Legislature plans to convene in extraordinary session next week to take up legislation in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak that has killed 128 people in the state and sickened more than 3,000.

The upcoming session comes as a growing number of Republican lawmakers and business organizations call on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and health care officials to specify their plans for reopening the many businesses across the state that have been ordered closed to mitigate the spread of the disease. However, Evers and DHS secretary Andrea Palm have cautioned that reopening businesses will happen over time and only after they feel such a move would be safe for state residents.

Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal Friday he has not seen the GOP proposal yet, but added he looks forward to moving toward an agreement with Republicans.

“There are high expectations from the folks in this state that we accomplish something in a bipartisan way … of course the details are always the important thing,” Evers said. “There’s several other pieces that are really critical to finally drive a stake in the heart of this virus.”

While official legislation has not been provided and it remains undetermined which days both chambers will meet, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, released a joint statement Friday that the extraordinary session is set to begin Tuesday.

“We continue to work with members of the minority party on the legislation,” the statement said. “We’re confident that this plan will make the necessary legislative changes to help Wisconsin deal with the extensive challenges from this public health crisis, while also protecting the integrity of our state budget.”

COVID-19 cases and deaths

Fitzgerald and Vos said the legislation will work in tandem with the more than $2 billion in federal stimulus funds Wisconsin is slated to receive.

A draft memo of proposed legislation provided this week by Evers’ office included language to further weaken the governor’s authority by giving the state’s GOP-led budget committee the ability to cut spending on schools, health care and employee pay, among other things.

However, that proposed language was later removed, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, signaled in a Thursday tweet.

Other items in the GOP-proposed legislation included waiving the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits and waiving late payment fees and interest on missed property tax payments through Oct. 1.

Other provisions in the package include increasing the state’s bonding power for refunding state debt and prohibiting an insurance provider from discriminating against a COVID-19 patient.

In late-March, Evers called on the GOP-led Legislature to take up a $700 million legislative package meant to address health care needs related to the outbreak, extend the statewide public health emergency indefinitely and boost health care staffing. Many of the spending items proposed last month by Evers were not included in the initial GOP memo this week.

On Friday, Evers stressed his hopes of waiving the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, as well as waiving some Medicaid requirements to gain access to more resources.

Evers added that investments in the local health system will be another critical item.

“Our public health system is going to look different after all this,” Evers said. “All that stuff takes money and it takes people and we just have to recognize that, yes, we’re going to get through this, but we have to also ensure that our public health systems, especially at the local level, have the resources necessary to immediately get on something when it happens.”

Economic impact

As the Legislature prepares to convene, an increasing number of GOP lawmakers and business organizations have called on Evers to lay out a plan for reopening large sectors of the economy that have been shut down due to the outbreak.

On March 18, Evers ordered all bars and restaurants to halt sit-in services. A week later, he instituted a “safer at home” order that shut down nonessential businesses until April 24.

Evers’ public health emergency can remain in effect until May 11. After that, any extension would require support from the Legislature. Evers requested last month in his proposed legislative package that lawmakers extend the statewide public health emergency indefinitely until it is revoked by the Legislature.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, on Friday issued a statement calling on Evers to re-evaluate his COVID-19 response.

“Every sickness and death is a tragedy, but so are businesses and livelihoods ruined by shelter in place orders,” Stroebel said in the statement. “The same rings true for the pronounced negative impacts on civil liberties and quality of life. Good policymaking is a cost/benefit analysis. There are benefits to health safety measures, but new data demands we rerun our analysis continuously.”

Stroebel also criticized Evers’ order this week shutting down 40 state parks and recreational areas due to congestion, littering and vandalism.

“We do not yet know what our fiscal challenges will look like in a few months, but these are challenges that will only get worse if we fail to reopen our society in a timely fashion,” Stroebel said.

On Thursday, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, along with 18 state business associations and 33 local chambers of commerce, sent a letter to Evers calling for a plan to begin reopening businesses after the order concludes on April 24.

On Friday, Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm acknowledged the economic impacts of the shutdown, but reiterated concerns that reopening businesses too quickly could undo efforts to mitigate the disease’s spread.

“Nobody wants to open up the state any more than I do, but we have to make sure the state is ready to be opened,” Evers said. “The last thing you want is to have a resurgence because you quote, unquote reopened too soon.”

The state Department of Workforce Development on Thursday projected that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has climbed to nearly 27% due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The projection, which is not the same as the official state unemployment rate, mirrors the explosive growth in unemployment claims — which have surpassed 300,000 initial claims since mid-March.

The latest analysis projects that close to 725,000 Wisconsin residents — across 48,000 private establishments — are out of work due to the pandemic. Some 109,000 people already were unemployed before the outbreak.

Also on Friday, DHS announced additional benefits for more than 215,000 FoodShare households, to assist during the pandemic.

Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the state provided recipients with the maximum monthly benefit amount — based on the number of people in a household — for March and April.

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