MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers has a new, $541 million plan aimed at providing relief for Wisconsin residents during the coronavirus pandemic, but top Republicans who control the state Legislature signaled Tuesday they aren’t on the same page and haven’t drafted any of their own bills.
The first glimmer of bipartisan state action on the pandemic in seven months vanished almost as quickly as it appeared on a day 92 people died of COVID-19 — a new, awful record for the state ravaged by the virus.
The Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers appear to be heading toward a familiar place: At risk of no action being taken while COVID-19 cases soar, even as other states take new steps to prepare for a cold winter that will push more people indoors, raising the risk of infection.
Evers released his legislative package earlier than planned after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester called a news conference Tuesday afternoon “about new legislative initiatives” on COVID-19 instead of responding to a request from Evers on Monday to work together on finalizing a bill to present publicly next week.
Vos did not release specific proposals at the news conference, but told reporters he wants to work with Evers on a bill that would double the number of contact tracers in the state, provide lawsuit protections for businesses and expand rapid testing throughout the state.
But after the news conference, a top Republican in the state Senate said he didn’t see any need for the Legislature to act at all.
“At this point, I haven’t seen anything that I’m real excited about,” incoming Senate President Chris Kapenga of Delafield, said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
He said he didn’t support Vos’ call for increasing contact tracing and didn’t like some of the main provisions of Evers’ proposed legislation, such as banning evictions and foreclosures and continuing to suspend the waiting period to receive unemployment benefits.
“I’m not real keen on that stuff,” Kapenga said.
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If adopted, Evers’ plan would suspend for another year standardized testing to measure the performance of schools and allow those thrown out of work to immediately claim unemployment benefits, suspending for another year a requirement that normally forces people to wait a week before receiving benefits. It also would continue to suspend a requirement that the unemployed search for work to receive benefits.
Lawmakers made temporary changes to the unemployment system in the spring because of the pandemic, but they are slated to end in January. Evers wants to keep the changes in place until the end of 2021.
Evers’ legislation would require health insurers to cover services provided remotely and require them to cover COVID-19 testing, treatment, prescriptions and vaccines. Insurers would be blocked from requiring their recipients to pay a share of those costs or get authorization before obtaining those services.
In addition, Evers wants health care workers and other critical workers to automatically receive worker’s compensation benefits if they contract COVID-19.
The governor’s proposal also would allow pharmacists to extend most prescription refills by 30 days through the end of 2021, according to an analysis of the measure provided by the governor’s office.
Evers’ legislation would cost $541 million, with much of that going toward testing. The total includes $75 million in tax breaks for businesses hurt by the pandemic.
Vos called the legislation too costly and said he hoped more expenses could be covered with federal funds. Evers has control of about $2 billion in federal aid he can use to fight COVID-19, but he must spend it by the end of the year. Vos said he hopes Congress will provide states with additional resources soon.
Vos said he was disappointed Evers’ legislation did not address the tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin who have been waiting months to receive a response to their unemployment claims.
More than 70,000 Wisconsinites have been waiting for weeks or months for benefits, or a rejection of their claim. Some have been waiting since the pandemic forced layoffs in March.
Vos said he has concerns about continuing to eliminate the one-week waiting period before the jobless may collect benefits.
Vos didn’t offer concrete legislation to deal with COVID-19 but provided an array of ideas — doubling the number of contact tracers in the state, making rapid tests more widely available and bringing at-home testing to Wisconsin. He did not say how much he was willing to spend to make those concepts happen.
He proposed having those receiving unemployment benefits conduct contact tracing, with the recipients receiving pay for that work on top of their benefits. He offered a similar idea for university students, saying they could be paid for the work and receive college credit.
Vos cast doubt on approving some of Evers’ proposals, such as the one to ban the initiation of evictions until the end of 2021.
“I think it’s very unlikely that we are going to say you don’t have to pay your rent until sometime (after) 2021,” said Vos, who is a landlord himself. “That’s probably not something where we’re going to say it’s OK to not pay your rent. That wouldn’t be good for our economy.”
Two sides again at odds
Evers sent his proposal to Vos and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu on Monday evening and did not receive a response, according to the governor’s office.
On Monday, Evers’ legislative liaison asked Vos and LeMahieu to “discuss and finalize” the ultimate COVID-19 relief package with the governor on Friday.
“On Friday, we would like to know what the two leaders are or are not supportive of and any other ideas you would like to see included in the legislation,” legislative liaison Zach Madden wrote in an email to the leaders.
Vos said Tuesday the public doesn’t care about when he is or isn’t meeting with the governor, but rather the ability of the two sides to strike a deal.
Wisconsinites “want us to say don’t focus on who’s fighting with who, don’t focus on who’s going to meet, what time, when, where, nobody cares,” he said. “What they want is they want us to find answers we can actually move the ball forward and be able to find things that can help people dealing with the coronavirus.”
As of last week, Evers and Vos hadn’t spoken in six months and hadn’t worked together on a plan to navigate the pandemic in seven months.
Republican lawmakers and conservatives have sued Evers over every major measure he’s put forward to address the pandemic, including a popular indoor face mask mandate.
Kapenga said he was worried Evers’ mask requirement and other COVID-19-related policies were hurting the state’s economy.
“You’ve got people I think who are very scared right now and that’s part of the problem out there. There’s a lot of fear,” Kapenga said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for (Evers) to be what I consider fear mongering. I think it’s OK to have a healthy respect for what’s going on with COVID and I think people can make their own decisions on that.”
According to the governor’s office, the bill also would:
- Suspend standardized testing and school report cards for another school year.
- Allow notaries to perform online notarization of estate planning documents, such as wills and trusts, through the end of 2021.
- Provide the Evers administration the authority to waive interest, penalties or payments on governmental loans and debt through the end of 2021.
- Allow Social Security disability recipients to continue to receive concurrent unemployment insurance benefits.
- Allow the rehiring of retirees and the ability to reinstate licensure (including people in the last five years and people from out of state) through the end of 2021.
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