MADISON – Divided Wisconsin Republicans scrambled Monday to put together a new coronavirus relief bill before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers delivers his State of the State speech Tuesday.
Republicans who control the state Senate unveiled a $100 million piece of legislation on Monday that differs from one Republicans in the Assembly passed last week.
Unless the two houses reach a deal, they won’t be able to get anything to Evers. And even if they do, they run the risk of the governor vetoing their legislation if they don’t cut a deal with him.
The new Senate bill shares many aspects of the legislation passed by the Assembly, including a provision that would protect businesses, local governments and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
But they removed two elements that could make their bill somewhat more appealing to Evers.
They took out a provision that would require local elected officials to vote to continue any emergency order issued by local health officials after two days. Also removed was a provision that would require a two-thirds vote of a school board to approve a plan to implement virtual instruction and require the board to vote every 14 days to keep it in place.
Evers has said any provisions that take power away from local officials navigating the pandemic is a problem for him.
A spokeswoman for Evers did not answer whether Evers would sign the new version of the Legislature’s bill.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Monday during a public hearing on the Senate’s plan that most of the provisions are ones that have gotten support from Evers before.
He said a majority of the 29 proposals in the bill extend measures in Act 185, or the first and only COVID-19-related law in Wisconsin that was passed in April.
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Of the new measures proposed in the Republicans’ bill, 10 were proposed by Evers in legislation the governor released in December.
Two measures are new, he said: one that requires nursing homes to allow residents to designate an “essential visitor” to allow family and friends to interact with elderly residents, and the proposed liability protections.
“When schools are going back to in-person (instruction), we need to make sure they’re protected from frivolous lawsuits,” LeMahieu said.
Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said the liability protection provision was crafted in response to business owners he has talked to who settle lawsuits out of court to avoid seeing the allegations become public documents, potentially hurting their businesses.
The litigation protections Republicans are backing are so broad that they would prevent most lawsuits. Businesses would be immune from lawsuits even if they stayed open when told to close or declined to follow orders to limit their capacity.
Democrats in the state Assembly all voted against the Assembly’s version and conservative Republicans in the state Senate who favor limiting public health officials’ power during the pandemic may also oppose the Senate’s proposal.
Senate leaders hope to take their bill to the floor on Tuesday, just hours before Evers will give his State of the State speech, which this year is being delivered virtually.
At least one Senate Republican said he would vote against the bill, saying the changes from Senate leaders were meant to “placate Governor Evers.”
“… the state Senate will take up a bill that fails to address most of the pressing issues weighing on the citizens of this state regarding COVID-19,” Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater said in a statement. “I will have to vote against this weak and ineffective Senate version of the bill.”
LeMahieu said Monday he would have gone further with the bill, like including measures that would require more in-person classroom instruction, but did not because he wants Evers to sign the bill.
In a sign of the turmoil among Republicans, Senate leaders had trouble figuring out how to handle Monday’s hearing.
First, they took the unusual step of sending it to a committee that hasn’t been used in more than a decade. On Monday, they abruptly scheduled a hearing before it to the Senate Organization Committee, a committee of leaders from both parties that schedules floor votes and rarely holds hearings.
To get the bill before that committee, LeMahieu, of Oostburg, declared an emergency so he could avoid a requirement that the public be notified of hearings at least 24 hours in advance.
“Boy, they’re off to a flying start, aren’t they?” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach of West Point said of Republicans.
LeMahieu apologized to Democratic members during the public hearing, saying he does not plan to use the same process in the future.
Republicans and Evers last approved COVID-19 legislation in April, but they have only renewed talks recently and have been unable to reach an agreement.
In the latest negotiations, Evers initially sought $541 million but later agreed to $100 million. But he has said he would likely veto the Assembly version of the bill if it got to him because of several provisions.
Both the Senate and Assembly versions of the legislation would require insurers to provide testing and vaccines without cost to individuals, make the vaccine available through the state’s SeniorCare prescription drug program and put off until March the reimposition of a one-week waiting period before those out of work can claim unemployment benefits. The one-week waiting period has been suspended during the pandemic but is slated to go back into effect in February.
Both would also protect businesses, schools and local governments — something that Evers and Democrats oppose because they believe it would give a free pass to entities that don’t do enough to protect their workers or the public.
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