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Tony Evers vetoes GOP-authored COVID-19 legislation
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LEGISLATURE | COVID-19 RESPONSE

Tony Evers vetoes GOP-authored COVID-19 legislation

Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a Republican COVID-19 relief package Friday within hours of the Senate approving the bill.

The Senate voted 19-11 along party lines to pass the first COVID-19 relief package sent to Evers’ desk since April. The legislation would have implemented coronavirus liability protections for businesses and schools and given the GOP-controlled budget committee the ability to transfer $100 million in certain appropriations for COVID-19 expenses, among other things.

However, the package, which has bounced back and forth between the GOP-led chambers in the Legislature for the last month and at one time included language Evers said he would sign, also included Republican-authored amendments the governor has opposed, including measures to limit his use of emergency orders and give Republicans in the Legislature authority over how the state spends future federal COVID-19 dollars.

“Wisconsinites know a compromise when they see one, and this isn’t it,” Evers said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Republicans once again chose to put politics before people, abandoned that compromise, and passed a bill they knew I wouldn’t sign.”

Governors and lieutenant governors from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Minnesota and Ohio are encouraging residents to make a plan for how they can get the coronavirus vaccine once they become eligible.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a joint statement condemning Evers’ veto against legislation they said “provides the state more than $100 million to fight the virus and ensures that Wisconsinites have access to necessary medications, vaccines and COVID-19 tests.”

“The legislature sent the governor a bill approved by both houses that should have become law,” the lawmakers said.

What’s more, Republicans say Evers’ veto means Wisconsin will miss out on $6.5 million in federal unemployment assistance tied to an amendment in the legislation that would temporarily extend the state’s waiver of the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits.

Federal aid

LeMahieu said the amendments were necessary for the package to get support from both GOP-led chambers.

Legislation Evers signed in April temporarily waives the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, which allows Wisconsin to collect additional federal unemployment dollars, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The waiting period, which the waiver overrides, was passed years ago by Republicans. An amendment in the COVID-19 relief package would have extended the waiver through mid-March.

With the waiting period waiver expiring on Sunday, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the state will lose $1.3 million in federal reimbursement funding for each week the requirement is in place — for a total of $6.5 million over five weeks.

Evers’ office directed questions regarding the waiting period and federal unemployment funding to the state Department of Workforce Development. DWD did not respond to requests for comment Thursday or Friday.

DWD’s website states that the department will continue to waive the state’s requirement that unemployment recipients search for other employment while receiving benefits and has submitted to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau certification of a new emergency rule to address the issue. The website does not directly address the one-week waiting period.

“Despite what they said on the floor today ... the Republicans own the one week waiting period,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, tweeted Friday. “It’s their policy.”

‘Far too long’

Evers also called on Republicans to immediately send him an earlier version of the bill that he already said he would sign.

“It’s taken far too long for the Legislature to take further action on this pandemic. Wisconsinites don’t care about political points or who gets the credit,” he said. “Enough politics — just get it done.”

While the Senate last month had removed from the legislation a handful of items authored by Assembly Republicans to create a version Evers said he supported, the Assembly reintroduced several of those measures, which the Senate later signed off on.

Other items returned to the package would prohibit employers from mandating vaccines for employees and allow local public health officials the ability to limit gatherings at churches and other places of worship and provide business liability protections, which Democrats oppose for fear that such protections could limit COVID-19 prevention measures, such as requiring masks in stores.

Mask mandate

Republicans have said one amendment to the COVID-19 relief package addresses concerns that eliminating Evers’ statewide mask rule — which the Assembly voted to do on Thursday — could cut Wisconsin off from tens of millions of dollars in federal assistance for low-income families.

Federal COVID-19 aid passed last year provides assistance to households participating in food assistance programs as long as the state has an existing emergency health order in place, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The state Department of Health Services estimated some 242,000 Wisconsin households received more than $49 million in emergency benefits last month under the federal aid package.

Assembly Republicans voted to strike down Evers’ statewide mask mandate Thursday, but the governor issued a new identical measure, preventing a lapse in federal food assistance dollars.

Evers’ latest order, which is slated to run until March 20, could force Republicans to pass another joint resolution to eliminate the order — something Evers could potentially sidestep again with yet another mask rule.

The governor has issued multiple emergency orders and accompanying mask mandates in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, while Republicans say Evers has overstepped his authority by implementing repeated measures beyond the 60-day limit.

Ultimately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on an existing challenge to the governor’s mask mandate, will likely make the final determination.

New proposal

Also on Friday, Democrats in the Assembly and Senate introduced a bill that would put a statewide mask order in place until the federal COVID-19 national emergency concludes.

Democratic lawmakers said on a press call the measure aims to address the ongoing back-and-forth fight between Evers and Republicans over the mask mandate to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 6,000 people in the state.

“No more excuses about process,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit. “No more complaints about Gov. Evers trying to protect Wisconsinites from this deadly virus. If you don’t want the governor to do this by emergency order, then pass a bill and do it that way.”

The bill is likely headed for the same fate as a similar Democratic-authored amendment that Republicans in the Assembly refused to take up on Thursday.

Fave 5: State government reporter Mitchell Schmidt shares his top stories of 2020

Choosing my five favorite stories of 2020 seems almost paradoxical.

This year has felt like one exhausting slog of pandemic stories, state Legislature updates and, oh yeah, a presidential election thrown in for good measure. Thanks to a split government, there's been no shortage of politically-charged stories here in Wisconsin and the partisan divide has, maybe unsurprisingly, felt as wide as ever throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don't know if "favorite" is the best way to describe them, but here are a few stories from 2020 that stood out to me:

Back in March, Gov. Tony Evers issued the state's first public health emergency in response to the then-emerging pandemic. At the time, Wisconsin had reported eight total cases of COVID-19.

As the pandemic progressed, positive cases and deaths climbed and state lawmakers battled over the appropriate response. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order, a decision that still resonates today with the state's coronavirus-related measures.

One story I was particularly excited about before I officially started working for the State Journal was the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. However, like most things this year, the pandemic drastically altered that plan.

In non-pandemic news, the state in October formally denied billions of dollars in state tax credits to Foxconn Technology Group — a story we managed to get before any other outlet in the state through records requests and sourcing.

Lastly, in November I worked on a story about how GOP-drawn legislative maps once again disproportionately benefited Republicans in state elections. Wisconsin is headed toward another legal battle next year when the next batch of 10-year maps are drawn.

Feel free to read my top stories below, or check out my other state government articles from this year, (by my count, there have been more than 300 so far).

Also, thanks to all the subscribers out there. This year has been challenging on so many people, so your support is so much appreciated.

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