Republicans try to shift attention to civil unrest instead of COVID-19 as cases continue to surge

MADISON – Republican lawmakers are trying to shift attention from COVID-19 to civil unrest, even as they seek several paths to overturn the state’s coronavirus rules amid a surge in infections. 

Four Republicans from southeastern Wisconsin — including two targeted by Democrats this fall — rolled out legislation Friday that would establish tougher penalties for rioting. 

The move came as some Republicans took steps to revoke a new order from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration limiting bars, restaurants and stores to 25% of their capacity.

And one Republican is promising a lame-duck session to revoke the state’s mask requirement if a lawsuit over the issue doesn’t go their way. 

Republicans have not offered plans to deal with the surge in coronavirus cases that began last month. On Thursday, Wisconsin health officials announced a record 3,132 daily cases. Within a month, cases in the state have doubled and hospitalizations in the  Fox Valley have quadrupled, leading Evers to prepare to open a field hospital at State Fair Park next week. 

Republicans on Friday put their attention to the punishment for rioting.

They unveiled the legislation after two nights of unrest in Wauwatosa following the decision not to criminally charge Police Officer Joseph Mensah over the shooting death of Alvin Cole. The situation in Wauwatosa occurred after a summer of arson and looting around the country, including in Kenosha after Police Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake from behind.

The Republican legislation would make it a misdemeanor to attend or incite a riot and a felony to participate in a riot that results in injury or significant property damage. The measure would toughen an existing law that makes it a misdemeanor to refuse to leave an unlawful assembly.

“We have unfortunately witnessed too much damage and destruction in our state in recent months after protests have turned into violent riots. These riots have stolen the livelihoods of too many Wisconsinites,” the sponsors of the legislation wrote to their colleagues Friday. 

The lead backers of the bill are Sen. Chris Kapenga of Delafield, Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville, Rep. Rob Hutton of Brookfield and Rep. Dan Knodl of Germantown. 

Hutton and Knodl are two top targets for Democrats, who believe support for Republicans is fading in the suburbs. The pair did not return phone calls Friday and earlier this week from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Knodl was listed as a speaker last week at an event where Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson spoke. Johnson the next day disclosed he had COVID-19. Knodl hasn’t said whether he was quarantining himself or getting tested.

Emily Siegrist, the Democrat running against Knodl, said the new legislation was an attempt by Republicans to deflect from their lack of action on the coronavirus.

“They’re taking Gov. Evers to court about the mask mandate. They’re more concerned about that than our small businesses,” she said.

To address the pandemic and its economic fallout, lawmakers should offer loans or grants to small businesses, improve the state’s unemployment insurance system and expand health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, she said.

She said she was troubled by the unrest in Wauwatosa but opposed Knodl and Hutton’s bill because she thought it was so broad that it would curb peaceful protests.

Democrats slam lack of action on COVID

Also Friday, 13 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the top Republicans in the Legislature criticizing them for not taking any action on COVID-19 over the last six months.

“Our state is in crisis, worsened by your inaction and by your desire to file lawsuits instead of passing bills that will make a difference in the lives of your constituents,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach of West Point and the others wrote. 

They called for expanding health coverage and unemployment insurance and providing health care workers with hazard pay,

For now, Republicans are focused on stopping Evers’ order limiting the capacity of bars, restaurants and stores.

They contend the measure is illegal, in part because of a state Supreme Court ruling in May that ended the administration’s stay-at-home order. Evers says his order is legally valid and will help curb the spread of the illness.

A legislative committee plans to meet Monday on the latest order so it can force the administration to write formal rules within 30 days on business capacity. Once any rules were written, the committee could immediately block them. 

The panel, called the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, is controlled by Republicans and co-chaired by GOP Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater.

“Evers and (Health Services Secretary Andrea) Palm are now openly abusing the rule of law for politically motivated purposes relating to the November election,” Nass said in a statement this week, as he advanced his plan to block the order limiting business capacity. 

It’s just one of a few efforts Republicans are working on to roll back Evers’ COVID-19 response plan.

They recently filed a brief in court to eliminate the mask mandate. If that fails, Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine this week said lawmakers would convene soon after the Nov. 3 election to vote it down.

“I can tell you that’s what will happen,” Wanggaard said. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester have not answered questions about whether Wanggaard is right about that. 

But last month Fitzgerald told the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network he wanted to hold a lame-duck session to deal with a variety of bills. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.