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Wisconsin Senate Republicans want oversight of COVID-19 funds, vaccine deployment
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COVID-19 | LEGISLATURE

Wisconsin Senate Republicans want oversight of COVID-19 funds, vaccine deployment

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The state’s Republican leaders said Wednesday that any COVID-related legislation they pass in the new year would include provisions to give the Legislature oversight of future virus-related spending and the state’s upcoming vaccine deployment efforts.

Senate Republicans plan to caucus Thursday on potential COVID-19 legislation, but it remains unlikely that any package of bills would pass both chambers of the GOP-led Legislature before the end of the year.

“Whatever money is authorized, either through the federal government or state government, there definitely needs to be legislative oversight over how this new money is spent,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said during a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce webinar on Wednesday.

The state Department of Health Services reported 3,619 COVID-19 cases and another 81 deaths Wednesday, bringing the totals to more than 422,000 cases and 3,887 deaths since the pandemic began.

LeMahieu said there may be support in the Senate for some of the items brought forth by Assembly Republicans — such as liability protections for businesses, schools and local governments or addressing the ongoing backlog of unemployment insurance claims — but added such bills likely won’t be taken up until next year.

“The reason we want to wait until January to get this done is because there are a lot of great ideas in the Assembly plan, but we think it’s important to vet these ideas with different stakeholders … and to make sure they make sense and are the best possible,” LeMahieu said.

Both LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have been meeting in recent weeks with Gov. Tony Evers, who has asked for an urgent response with regard to COVID-19-related measures to ensure that the state doesn’t see a lapse in efforts such as testing and contact tracing. Any unused federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds are set to expire at the end of the month, while Evers estimated the state will need $466 million in the first quarter of next year in order to maintain existing state measures.

Evers has proposed a roughly $541 million package, while Vos has laid out a $100 million plan. In addition, LeMahieu has proposed using some of the state’s surplus medical assistance funds to address pandemic needs, but Evers called the proposal “unacceptable” last week.

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Evers said this week he still hopes to reach a bipartisan solution with the GOP-led Legislature before the end of the year, but some items in the proposal by Assembly Republicans could face an uphill battle, including measures to essentially force in-person classes at schools by the end of January, with exceptions, and require a two-thirds vote by school boards to approve online instruction. School boards would have to vote to approve online courses every two weeks.

The GOP legislation also would require most state employees to return to their place of work by the the end of next month.

Both Vos and LeMahieu said it’s unlikely legislative Republicans will support Evers’ proposals to renew a waiver of the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, as well as a waiver of work search requirements to receive benefits. Both waivers were approved back in April, the last time the Legislature convened on any pandemic-related legislation. The Republican leaders also said they hope any federal coronavirus package does not include additional unemployment payments, like the previous package did.

“I certainly am empathetic with folks who are out of work and need to find a position to be able to pay their bills, but in a state like Wisconsin, where so many jobs go wanting every day, any incentive that we put in place which lets people stay on government assistance to pay their mortgage, as opposed to finding a new job to do the same thing, is really counterproductive to helping our economy grow,” Vos said.

Other developments

  • Evers announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Defense will be deploying about 45 U.S. Army medical personnel to aid with the state’s COVID-19 response efforts.

The incoming personnel will support Marshfield Medical Center facilities in Marshfield, Eau Claire, Beaver Dam and Rice Lake — a clinic system that has been using volunteers from the Wisconsin Emergency Assistance Volunteer Registry and needs additional support to meet patient demand.

“Because of the prolonged and intense nature of this crisis, many hospitals are near full capacity and medical staff is exhausted,” Dr. Susan Turney, Marshfield Clinic Health System CEO, said in a statement. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the importance of partnerships in meeting this momentous challenge. We look forward to partnering with military medical personnel to provide the care our patients need.”

  • Evers also announced the availability of up to $3.25 million in federal CARES Act funds for Wisconsin’s nine ethanol producers. The funding is meant to offset some of the ethanol industry’s pandemic-related losses.

In addition to producing fuel, the state’s ethanol plants help drive demand for corn crops, while also providing carbon dioxide — a byproduct and component for food and beverage packaging and the manufacturing of dry ice.

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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