MADISON – Assembly Speaker Robin Vos offered a $100 million plan Tuesday to boost the state’s response to COVID-19, but his fellow Republicans in the state Senate offered no initial support and the package includes numerous elements opposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Vos’ proposal was the first detailed one to be offered by a Republican in the 7½ months since the Legislature last met. But the reception to it — or lack thereof — signaled that legislators may not act quickly as the coronavirus continues to course through Wisconsin.
“After working through ideas and discussions with Assembly GOP members, we have created a robust package to address the critical needs of our state,” Vos, of Rochester, said in a statement.
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The plan includes provisions aimed at attacking the virus and its effects, like hiring double the number of state employees tasked with addressing the pandemic, expanding testing, requiring the state Department of Workforce Development to clear a backlog of unemployment claims, giving grants of up to $15,000to businesses in the hospitality industry, and providing schools with $9 million to ensure students have computers at home.
But it also includes components that could spread COVID-19, such as requiring state employees and teachers to work in person by the end of January — before a vaccine is expected to be widely distributed.
Employees with the University of Wisconsin System would be exempt from that requirement, according to an analysis of the proposal by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The plan would give a committee controlled by Republican lawmakers, some of whom have in the past downplayed the threat of COVID-19, veto power over Wisconsin’s vaccine distribution plan and would bar employers from requiring employees to get vaccinated.
Local health officials also would be barred from issuing emergency orders that close businesses or implement capacity restrictions unless the limits apply to all types of businesses. Such orders could be in effect for up to two weeks, under the plan, unless the order is extended by a county board for another two weeks.
The measure would also reduce funding for school districts by requiring them to pay parents $371 if their children had spent half their time or more in virtual classes since September. That amounts to half the increase in per-pupil school aid for the year.
Evers reacted cooly to the plan through his spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback.
“Gov. Evers has repeatedly asked Republicans for their plan to respond to COVID-19 and remains ready and willing to work together on a proposal that will pass both houses with bipartisan support. It’s unfortunate that Republicans can’t even agree among themselves on a plan for our state’s response to this pandemic,” she said in a statement.
The GOP plan would require schools to provide in-person education by late January in most cases; make rapid antigen tests and home testing kits more widely available; keep in place a policy that bars co-payments for testing; insulate businesses, schools and government agencies from lawsuits; allow family members to visit those in nursing homes; and give lawmakers a say in how a vaccine is distributed.
While the plan would provide an additional $100 million for COVID-19, it would also require the Evers administration to cut more than $300 million in spending from other parts of the budget.
The plan is less than a fifth the size of the $541 million proposal Evers recently offered. Republicans called that plan far too expensive.
Under the proposal, state buildings would have to reopen to the public by Jan. 31. State buildings, including the Capitol, have been closed to the public for months to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be available for health care workers and other first responders as early as December, but the general public will likely have to wait longer for vaccinations.
The plan would prohibit state and local health officials from requiring residents to receive a vaccine against COVID-19.
Democrats immediately rejected the package.
“There are so many extremely politically divisive items in this legislation at a time when we need the opposite. Not only do Wisconsin Republicans not want to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, they want to put into law limits on local governments in their ability to respond in the way that works for their community,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said. “This bill is politically driven, undermines Governor Evers’ efforts to combat the virus, and ignores the reality our state is facing.”
Plan yet to be embraced
Vos released his plan publicly shortly after discussing it with Evers and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg. LeMahieu did not immediately react to it, but he emphasized in a statement that Senate Republicans are reluctant to spend new money to battle COVID-19
LeMahieu said Evers can draft a plan using existing funds if he wants by tapping into a surplus in a fund that provides health coverage to the elderly, disabled and low income.
“Senate members have serious concerns relating to the most effective distribution of new state funding,” LeMahieu said in his statement.
Republicans who control the Legislature’s budget committee would have to sign off on any plan Evers offered and LeMahieu didn’t give any sign of what he considered acceptable.
Plan is wide-ranging
Vos’ plan would ensure businesses, schools, health care providers and other organizations could not be held liable for COVID-19-related claims.
Health care providers would be protected from civil claims sought between July 10, 2020 and June 30, 2021 if their actions were provided in good faith while following official health guidance and do not involve reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct, according to the fiscal bureau.
A similar provision was included in the COVID-19 relief law passed in April, but it expired in July.
The plan also would exempt public and private school officials from liability during the current school year for the death of or injury to an individual related to the exposure or possible exposure to COVID-19 while on school grounds, attending a school event or during transport to or from school grounds or school activities.
And the plan would give the Joint Finance Committee the power to veto a vaccine distribution plan. The plan would require the Department of Health Services to submit a vaccine distribution plan to the committee by Dec. 31.
The plan would have to prioritize distribution of the vaccines to health professionals and first responders who are providing testing, care or treatment services to individuals who have or may have COVID-19 and to long-term care facility staff and residents, according to the fiscal bureau.
The plan would have to ensure that vaccines must be available within an hour of all Wisconsin residents.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.