MADISON – For state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, it’s vote first, ask questions later.
The freshman Republican from Campbellsport last month indicated to the Assembly speaker that he didn’t know what was in an amendment he’d voted for in April, according to an email released under the state’s open records law. Ramthun asked Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester to explain a part of it addressing benefits for police officers stricken with coronavirus, writing that the provision appeared “deeply disturbing.”
Ramthun in recent days would not answer questions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about why he voted for an amendment if he didn’t know what was in it. But in a brief written statement, he backed away from the concern he’d expressed in May about the provision.
The incident offers a peek at how legislating sometimes occurs in Madison, with lawmakers casting votes based on what leaders tell them without looking into the details themselves.
At issue is a last-minute amendment by Vos to a sprawling coronavirus relief package. The dense, eight-page amendment didn’t include a plain-language explanation of its provisions, as amendments offered earlier in the legislative process do.
Tucked into it was a measure written by business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce affecting when police officers who contract coronavirus can qualify for workers’ compensation.
Vos and other Republicans contend the provision is good for such officers because it includes a presumption that they got the illness on the job and qualify for workers’ compensation. Police officials argue the presumption is effectively meaningless because officers will ultimately have to show they were infected while on the job, a high bar that will make it extremely difficult to qualify for workers’ compensation.
Police officers wanted the original version of the legislation to pass because it contained broader language that would make it easier to qualify for workers’ compensation.
Ramthun joined all other Republicans to vote for the amendment that watered down the workers’ compensation elements of the bill. The Assembly’s 36 Democrats voted against it.
A month later, Ramthun expressed second thoughts about the vote.
He told Vos in an email that a police chief in his district had asked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ office about the provision. An aide to the governor told the police chief that the governor supported making workers’ compensation more easily available to officers but that the Republican amendment prevented that.
“Frankly, I find that deeply disturbing, as did the police chief who forwarded it to me,” Ramthun wrote in an email to Vos. “Is there any merit to this claim from the Governor’s office?”
Ramthun would not return phone calls from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel but said in a written statement that the police chief had received a “miscommunication” from Evers’ office about the workers’ compensation provision.
An aide to Vos gave Ramthun an explanation of the amendment and Ramthun said he’d “resolved the matter” by passing it along to the police chief.
Ramthun would not name the police chief, but Kewaskum Police Chief Tom Bishop said in an interview that he had contacted Ramthun about the matter. Bishop said he wasn’t satisfied with Ramthun’s explanation for the provision.
“I think the burden of proof is almost unobtainable right now,” he said of the workers’ compensation standard included in the amendment. “People are asymptomatic for a period of time that can be days. If I come down with it tomorrow I don’t really necessarily have a way to look back and guarantee where I got it.”
Bishop said he didn’t consider the response from the governor’s office to miscommunicate the facts, as Ramthun claimed.
Ramthun did not explain why he had to ask Vos what was in the amendment a month after he had voted for it. He didn’t answer questions about why he hadn’t asked for an explanation of the amendment before voting on it.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said he “would prefer that our elected policymakers be well informed about the measures that come before them for a vote” but he understood lawmakers were trying to act quickly to ensure the state qualified for federal coronavirus aid.
The situation was made worse by the amendment being offered with little warning or explanation.
“It was a perfect storm to the detriment of our state’s first responders, and that was probably by design,” Palmer told the Journal Sentinel by email.
He said Republicans were using “semantic gymnastics” to make the case the workers’ compensation portions of the legislation were good for officers.
“The new law presumes that a first responder contracted COVID-19 from their employment — as long as they can show that it came from their employment,” he said by email. “That doesn’t really sound to me like a presumption at all, particularly when we’re talking about COVID-19, which has a lengthy dormancy period such that an individual may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks after contracting it.”
It’s not the first time lawmakers have gone along with leaders on an amendment without fully examining what it contained. In 2015, Republicans on the state’s budget committee approved a measure put together by leaders that would have undercut much of the state’s open records law. They retreated days later amid a bipartisan backlash.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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