Wisconsin Democrats skip state inauguration as they clash with Republicans over COVID-19

MADISON – The state Legislature kicked off its two-year session Monday with an inauguration unlike any before it, with some Senate Democrats participating by phone and most Assembly Democrats skipping the event because they thought the COVID-19 precautions were inadequate.

During the ceremony, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester announced he planned to pass coronavirus legislation this week that is packed with measures opposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. 

Vos said he’d reached an agreement with his fellow Republicans who control the Senate, but the $100 million bill appeared to be headed for a veto. 

For the Assembly’s inauguration, many Republicans wore masks. In the Senate, Democrats wore them but many Republicans did not. In both houses, lawmakers kept one or two desks between them to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee pleaded with Republicans who eschewed masks to think about Wisconsinites who are more vulnerable.

“Anybody in this body not wearing a mask does not care about my father, who has the blood type that is most susceptible,” Taylor said. “I have the right to tell you I do not appreciate the disregard for life. I have the right to tell you that some people are more susceptible and your leadership is not about you, it’s about everyone.”

In the Senate, about half the Democrats participated in person and about half by phone.

Assembly Democrats were sworn in last month and most of them didn’t attend Monday’s inauguration.

“I can tell you our constituents care far more that we are putting something out there, that we are getting behind things, that we are calling for bipartisan action than they do whether we’re there for an in-person ceremony or not,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh told reporters during a virtual news conference.

During his inauguration speech, Vos took a shot at Democrats for staying off the floor. 

“Today we celebrate our Wisconsin bonds, not as Republicans or Democrats — even though Democrats aren’t here — but as Wisconsinites,” he said. 

Monday’s events were mostly ceremonial but future meetings will require votes on legislation. Hintz said some Democrats would not be able to attend those meetings for health reasons. He said he hoped to reach a deal with Assembly Republicans to allow virtual participation in line with what the Senate allows.

Until then, Assembly Democrats will try to minimize how much time they spend on the floor.

“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of Assembly Democrats coming to the floor to give 20-minute speeches,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Spreitzer of Beloit. “We’re not going to want to debate things ad nauseum in a room with people who shouldn’t be spending a lot of time together in close spaces. We’re going to want to take our votes and communicate to our constituents in other ways that don’t involve spending a lot of time on the Assembly floor.”

Vos has said lawmakers need to return to work, as many private businesses have. He has not said why Republicans are not explicitly requiring lawmakers to wear masks or allowing them to participate virtually.

Evers has required people to wear masks when they are indoors other than in residences, but his mask order does not apply to the Legislature.

In the morning and early afternoon, state Supreme Court justices swore in senators one by one ahead of the inauguration. 

“Usually we have a little more ceremony, but it is pandemic time,” Justice Rebecca Bradley told Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville after swearing him in for a new term.  

In the Senate, an opening prayer was delivered by former state Rep. Dan LeMahieu, the father of incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg. He asked attendees to pray for state and federal leaders.

Devin LeMahieu, after being sworn in as majority leader, said the Senate would work to support the state’s “strong spirit” through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We pray for those who lost loved ones and we pray for those who lost businesses,” he said. “We believe better days lie ahead.”

Senate Democratic Leader Janet Bewley of Mason urged the Senate to do more work for the state in 2021 than the one bill the Legislature passed in response to the crises of 2020.

“Placed at our feet the obligation to see and face racial injustice within our systems,” she said. “As senators it is our job to repair what is old and broken … work delayed is justice delayed.”

No deal on COVID-19 legislation

Evers and Republicans have been unable to reach a deal on new COVID-19 legislation and Evers last month asked them to take up a scaled-down, $100 million bill that he said consists of elements both sides support. More contentious issues should be handled separately, he has said. He made a new pitch for the legislation Monday in a letter to lawmakers.

“Time is of the essence, and frankly, we cannot delay any longer,” he wrote.

In his inauguration speech, Vos accused Evers of walking away from negotiations and said he had his own bill that he wants to pass this week. Senate Republicans didn’t embrace Vos’ last bill, but Vos said they’re on board this time.

“Our constitution can never be placed on hold, even during times of a public health emergency,” Vos said. “We can’t allow an unelected bureaucrat to rule over communities like a dictator, picking and choosing what businesses should fail or forcing schools to be virtual.”

The bill includes some provisions Evers likes, such as requiring insurers to provide testing and vaccines without cost to individuals. But it is loaded with others that he opposes, greatly increasing the chance he will veto it if it gets to him.

It would provide liability protection to businesses and schools; make it easier for students to transfer between districts; allow school boards to offer virtual instruction only if approved with a two-thirds vote that would have to be renewed every 14 days; require unemployment call centers to accept calls for 12 hours a day, seven days a week; limit the power of health officials to act without the approval of elected officials; prevent the closure of churches and other places of worship; allow more visits at nursing homes; and give lawmakers oversight of any federal funds the state receives to fight COVID-19.

“It’s disappointing that instead of passing the COVID compromise the governor and Republican leaders worked on together, Republicans now plan to move ahead with their own legislation,” Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said in a statement. “Wisconsinites deserve legislators who will put politics aside and work together to do what’s best for the people of our state.”

Republicans push to reopen Capitol

Also Monday, Republicans passed a resolution in both houses directing the state Department of Administration to reopen the Capitol, which the administration has kept mostly closed since March. 

Republican leaders said the resolution would reopen the Capitol, but Bewley argued it didn’t override the administration’s ability to decide whether to keep the building closed most of the time.

Democratic senators sought to amend the resolution to require all people inside the building to wear face masks.

“I should not have to risk my life to come do my job,” Taylor said.

Republicans rejected the idea.

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