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Tony Evers and GOP clash over COVID-19 legislation that would empower budget committee to cut spending
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RESPONSE TO COVID-19 | NEW CHALLENGE TO EVERS

Tony Evers and GOP clash over COVID-19 legislation that would empower budget committee to cut spending

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series
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Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-led Legislature are poised for another clash — this time over the GOP’s COVID-19 response legislation, which calls for further weakening 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.

Currently such cuts have to be agreed upon by the committee and Democratic governor. Evers said the provision makes the package unworkable and he would likely veto it.

“I’m asking for the Legislature to take politics out of this proposal so we can move forward on addressing the needs of our state,” Evers said in a statement. “We don’t have time to play politics, and this provision won’t do anything to help our state respond to COVID-19 or to help our families who are struggling during this crisis. It’s time to get serious.”

The proposed legislation also would waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits and waive late payment fees and interest on missed property tax payments through Oct. 1.

“For almost a month we have been at work on a bill that includes essential provisions dealing with everything from Medicaid to the first week of unemployment,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement. “Millions of relief dollars are at stake for Wisconsin. Suggesting he’ll veto the full bill publicly, while privately we’re still negotiating, is irresponsible. We’ll keep working with the minority party to put together a bill that can hopefully pass soon with bipartisan support.”

Kate Constalie, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said, while leaders in both parties have been maintaining communications throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, the recent GOP proposal did not include Democratic collaboration.

Other provisions in the package include increasing the state’s bonding power for refunding state debt from about $6.8 billion to $7.5 billion and prohibiting an insurance provider from discriminating against a COVID-19 patient.

The package also would ease credentialing requirements on health care workers during the emergency declaration, but also eliminate the state’s 120-hour training requirement for nurse aides and replace it with the federal 75-hour requirement. The Legislature tried to reduce the training requirement in the most recent session, but Evers ultimately vetoed the bill.

Before Wednesday, few details had been available on what kind of legislation Republicans were considering or when they will meet again in response to a pandemic that has killed 99 and sickened 2,756 people in Wisconsin.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Assembly officials have tested their ability to hold a virtual session amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’ve been working with the other side of the aisle on a package of legislation and we’re hopeful to have something ready to go fairly soon, but I think it’s a little bit early to say exactly what day it’s going to be,” Steineke said. “I think it would be fair to say it would be in the next week to 10 days.”

The Senate rehearsed a virtual legislative session about two weeks ago. Steineke said the Assembly, which has 99 members, creates a bit more of a challenge due to its overall size.

“Part of it is just the sheer number of members that complicates it,” he said.

Left out

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.

A draft of the GOP proposal does not contain several spending items proposed last month by Evers including: allocating up to $200 million over the biennium to the Department of Administration and $300 million to the Department of Military Affairs to fund costs related to the coronavirus response; the addition of 64 new employees at the Division of Public Health at a cost of $10 million; $17 million in grant funds for local public health agencies; and $20 million in local government emergency assistance funds.

“I’ve said all along that time is of the essence in responding to this crisis,” Evers said in a statement. “People are scared, and people need to know that we’re not going to leave them in the lurch because we’re asking everyone to make sacrifices here.”

Federal stimulus

GOP leaders have said they’d rather wait to see how federal assistance dollars play out in Wisconsin before spending state money, especially considering the once-projected state surplus is all but an afterthought given the economic downturn resulting from the layoffs and shuttering of many businesses as a result of the virus.

Evers has the authority to spend $1.9 billion in federal stimulus funding on his own, but has asked for legislation to give state agencies more flexibility in handling the crisis.

GOP leaders also refused Evers’ request to hold a special session over the weekend regarding delaying the Tuesday election to June, while also shifting it to eliminate in-person voting.

Evers ultimately issued an emergency order on Monday to move the election, but Republicans challenged him in court on the same day and the order was overturned. The election was held Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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