After a lack of legislative action last week from the GOP-led Legislature, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said his administration plans to purchase 10,000 ventilators and 1 million protective face masks to assist with the state’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The decision comes as the number of people in the state with confirmed cases of the respiratory disease topped 1,000 Sunday. It also comes a week after Evers proposed a $700 million legislative package meant to address health care needs related to the outbreak, extend the statewide public health emergency indefinitely until it is revoked by the Legislature, and boost health care staffing.
The legislation also would waive the state’s voter identification requirement for the April 7 election, as well as extend the online registration deadline and waive the witness signature requirement for those voting absentee.
In a Friday email to legislative leaders, Chris Patton, deputy secretary for the Department of Administration, underscored the importance of quickly acquiring the protective equipment.
“As we have relayed to you consistently during our daily calls, time is of the essence,” Patton said in the email. “We do not have the luxury of weeks or months to respond to this crisis. The public’s health and safety must be our top priority, and we must have the ability to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances that COVID-19 presents.”
However, Republican leaders have expressed reluctance to spend state dollars until they have a firm grasp on how Wisconsin’s share of a federal stimulus package will be allocated. President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion stimulus package Friday, which includes $2.2 billion for Wisconsin — $1.9 billion of which will go directly to the state with the remainder allocated for some local jurisdictions, including Dane and Milwaukee counties.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has said that Evers’ administration can use existing federal dollars in the state’s account to cover the estimated $500 million in equipment, hiring costs and other expenses. Those funds could later be replaced by incoming federal stimulus dollars.
In a Saturday email to Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said — citing conversations with the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau — that the governor has had the authority to make the equipment purchases without legislative approval.
“Again, we implore you,” Vos and Fitzgerald said in the email. “Please do not wait any longer to buy ventilators and masks. Do it now.”
The clash between Evers and GOP leaders comes more than a week after both parties said they have begun daily communications to respond to the public health emergency.
In a Saturday email to Vos and Fitzgerald, Evers’ chief of staff Maggie Gau said the state already has procured more than 100,000 respirators, 260,000 face masks, 48,000 face shields, 40,000 surgical gowns and 70,000 pairs of gloves, but more is needed to properly protect health care workers, first responders and the public.
Gau added that the department will use its authority to expedite purchasing efforts.
“We simply will not wait for the Wisconsin legislature or the Trump Administration to act,” Gau said in the email. “Too many Wisconsin lives are at stake.”
Pressing for passage
In addition, officials in Evers’ administration pressed Vos and Fitzgerald on the need for the legislative package, which also would allocate 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. Both departments also would have the ability to request additional dollars from the state budget committee, if necessary.
The proposed legislation also would allow for the addition of 64 new employees at the Division of Public Health at a cost of $10 million; provide $17 million in grant funds for local public health agencies; prohibit the cancellation of insurance policies during the pandemic; and allocate $20 million in local government emergency assistance.
Evers also has proposed expanding funding to programs that assist child care providers, those unemployed as a result of the outbreak and organizations that assist the homeless.
The legislation also would repeal the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment insurance. GOP leaders last week said they would be more interested in suspending the requirement, rather than a full repeal.
According to preliminary numbers from the Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin saw more than 105,000 initial unemployment claims last week alone due to the outbreak and subsequent shutdown of all nonessential businesses in the state. There were about 5,600 initial claims made in the same span last year.
In the joint email, Vos and Fitzgerald expressed concern over the overall scope and cost of Evers’ proposed legislation.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin was expected to close out the biennium with a general fund balance of about $620 million, but lawmakers last week said the state likely no longer has extra dollars in the budget.
“Our current general fund balance can’t support that request, so we are very concerned about the impact on other vital parts of state government if we are not careful in the use of state dollars,” Vos and Fitzgerald said in the email.
As of Sunday, 1,112 Wisconsinites had tested positive for the respiratory disease, according to the Department of Health Services, an increase of 123 from Saturday. More than 15,000 people have tested negative and 13 have died, including one in Dane County.
Public Health Madison and Dane County reported a total of 183 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county as of 4:30 p.m. Sunday, up from 172 cases reported Saturday.
“We cannot possibly overstate the severity of this situation, the importance of flexibility to respond appropriately and expeditiously to COVID-19, and that any delay in action due to an inability to be nimble could have catastrophic consequences for the people of our state,” Patton said in a Friday email to legislative leaders.
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