MADISON – A monthslong impasse over COVID-19 is likely to continue because legislation Republican lawmakers plan to pass this week is packed with provisions opposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Evers told reporters in a virtual news conference Tuesday that the chance he would veto the latest Republican bill was “pretty strong.” He said he was disappointed Republicans haven’t signed onto bipartisan legislation when the two sides agree on some measures.
“Why not get something done? Instead they’ve decided that bipartisan effort was not to their liking, which is an odd position to take,” Evers told reporters.
Republicans plan this week to pass Assembly Bill 1, which would protect businesses, schools and local governments from coronavirus-related lawsuits; make it easier for students to transfer between school districts; 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 federal funds the state receives to fight COVID-19.
In addition, it would prevent employers from requiring their workers to get vaccinated.
It would also make it harder for schools to hold virtual classes. School boards could require virtual education only with a two-thirds vote and that vote would have to be renewed every 14 days.
The bill includes some elements Evers likes, such as requiring insurers to provide testing and vaccines without cost to individuals. It would also make the vaccine available through the state’s SeniorCare prescription drug program.
At a hearing Tuesday before the Assembly Health Committee, Republicans rallied behind the legislation, saying it would help businesses and the general public.
Democrats skipped the meeting because they weren’t allowed to participate virtually. They believe Republican lawmakers haven’t taken enough COVID-19 precautions in the Capitol.
The bill got a mixed reaction from those who testified.
A.J. Dixon, the owner of the Milwaukee restaurant Lazy Susan, said lawmakers should do more to keep the public safe by putting together a vaccine distribution plan and help restaurants by allowing them to sell cocktails to go.
“I think all of you in this room can find a plan that works better for everyone,” she said. “As much as we need immediate relief and immediate assistance, I think more can be done collectively together to make it work for everyone, not just some people.”
Steve Baas, a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, told lawmakers insulating businesses from lawsuits is essential.
“As business struggles with the COVID pandemic, and hopefully, optimistically, coming out of the COVID pandemic, the worst thing we could do is saddle them with a litigation epidemic,” he said.
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Ahead of the hearing, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul lashed out at Republicans, saying their bill would cause harm.
“The gist of the @WIAssemblyGOP COVID bill seems to be that they think we’re doing too much to fight COVID,” he wrote on Twitter. “As vaccine distribution ramps up, we need to crush the spread of the virus and get back to normal ASAP, not take an approach that will result in more harm.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, plans to pass the bill this week, but Republicans who control the Senate haven’t said what they will do. Vos this week said Republican senators support his bill, even though they did not get behind the last one he offered.
Republicans and Evers last agreed on how to address the pandemic in April, when they reached an initial bipartisan deal. For most of the nine months since then, the two sides haven’t talked.
A new round of negotiations began in recent weeks, only to falter soon afterward.
Evers proposed a $541 million bill that Republicans called too costly. He then asked them to approve a $100 million package that consists only of elements both sides support. Republicans have declined to act on that measure.
Molly Beck of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.