‘There’s pretty broad support for not coming in’: Senate GOP opposes meeting on COVID before end of year

MADISON – Republicans who control the state Senate oppose meeting before the end of the year but back having the Legislature’s budget committee provide Democratic Gov. Tony Evers millions of dollars in December to continue COVID-19 testing, the incoming majority leader said Wednesday.  

Sen. Devin LeMahieu, an Oostburg Republican who will take over as majority leader in January, said he liked aspects of a sprawling plan by GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester but had not yet studied the proposal. He said he received a 23-page summary of the proposal on Tuesday when he briefly met with Vos and Evers but the group did not discuss it.

“I would have liked to have seen it sooner,” LeMahieu said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.

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He said Evers suggested the group meet again Thursday and LeMahieu is willing. He said would be happy to meet with Evers even if Vos can’t make it.

Evers and Vos have vastly different plans for dealing with COVID-19, but both want the Legislature to meet in December, before federal aid to fight the coronavirus dries up, according to LeMahieu. But Senate Republicans made clear in a Tuesday meeting among themselves that they are not on board with that idea.

“There’s pretty broad support for not coming in,” LeMahieu said.

Instead, LeMahieu said his members would support having the Joint Finance Committee in December approve continuing COVID-19 testing by tapping into a fund that has a surplus that now stands at $120 million. That surplus, which is expected to grow to $269 million by July, could also be used for an additional field hospital if necessary, he said.

LeMahieu didn’t say how much he would be willing to commit to COVID-19 spending but expressed skepticism of using all of the surplus.  

“I think (the Evers administration) should actually like what we’re proposing as the Senate because it’s the quickest, most efficient way to make sure that funding is available going forward without getting bogged down in different policy debates, the 50 items that the speaker has in his legislation (and) what the governor wants,” he said. “We can just make sure that the health needs of the state are met in an expedited way.”

Evers wants to spend $541 million on COVID-19 in the first part of 2021. LeMahieu called that “premature” because Congress may provide states with more federal funds.

Vos wants to commit $100 million to COVID-19, but cut $300 million in spending from other parts of the budget. His plan includes a number of elements opposed by Democrats, such as protecting businesses from lawsuits, limiting the powers of health officials, making it harder for schools to hold virtual classes and requiring schools to make payments to parents if they have held mostly virtual classes since September.

LeMahieu said he liked the liability protections in Vos’ plan and wanted to review other aspects of his proposal.

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