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Wisconsin Senate leaders considering virtual session as a backup plan
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Wisconsin Senate leaders considering virtual session as a backup plan

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Scott Fitzgerald

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, speaks during a recent Senate session. 

The Wisconsin Senate has postponed next week’s Senate session and is considering a move it has never made before: meeting virtually.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate, who postponed their final March session to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, are in talks to potentially hold a virtual Senate session instead of meeting in person.

A virtual session, which state law allows to occur during a disaster, has not occurred under the law outlining the procedure for virtual meetings, which was created in 2009. Senate Chief Clerk Jeff Renk said he isn’t aware of any virtual meetings happening before or after then.

“As our government works to ensure the health and safety of residents across Wisconsin, I want to make you aware, at the request of the majority leader, of additional measures the state Senate may need to take in order to convene session in the near term,” Senate President Roger Roth said in correspondence sent to senators.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the Senate will reconvene this spring to take up discussion on pending legislation that already has passed the Assembly.

The Assembly concluded its session earlier this year, but the Senate was scheduled for at least one more floor session next week.

“After hearing feedback from a number of members, I have decided to postpone the Senate’s planned March floor period,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “This is out of an abundance of caution for senators, their family members and staff members who may be vulnerable to coronavirus.”

A Roth spokeswoman said the option of a virtual session, where senators could use state-issued laptops, is at this point a contingency plan if the Senate needs to act urgently on legislation to address the global pandemic or determines it isn’t safe to meet in person later this spring to take up items set to be voted on in next week’s postponed session.

The letter from Roth came as Gov. Tony Evers’ administration on Tuesday issued an order limiting public gatherings in most places to nine or fewer people, following federal guidance to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

State law allows for the Assembly or Senate, if they determine they cannot physically meet at the seat of government due to a disaster or the imminent threat of disaster, to “conduct a meeting and transact business through the use of any means of communication.” The law requires each participant to be able to be verified and their actions authenticated. The law also says participating members should be able to hear the comments from the lawmakers who speak, read documents that are shared, and allow for the public to observe the proceedings “within technological limits.”

Roth’s letter quickly got pushback from Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, who wrote to Roth that he plans on “attending session in person” because “it’s my job to be there to represent my constituents.”

“I believe the Senate should come back from its vacation and meet as early as possible to work on dealing with these complicated issues,” Carpenter said, flouting advice from the federal government that people should avoid meeting in groups of 10 or more people. Several Senate members are in the at-risk category of older adults.

In an interview, Carpenter said he wants the Senate, if it meets, to convene in the larger state Assembly chamber, where members can easily sit the recommended 6 feet from one another. He said Senate leadership should attend and that other senators should decide whether they attend in person or through a virtual option.

“I don’t want to be calling in on a teleconference trying to take care of important business,” Carpenter said.

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