MADISON – Republicans in the state Senate sent Gov. Tony Evers a $100 million COVID-19 response bill Friday that the Democratic governor immediately vetoed — continuing the 10-month stretch of the two sides being unable to agree on how to address the pandemic.
Ahead of his veto announcement, Republicans who control the Legislature warned Evers he would be putting $6.5 million in federal unemployment benefits at risk if he did not quickly sign the legislation. They noted his veto means a one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits will resume Sunday.
Unswayed by the Republican entreaties, Evers said he was vetoing their legislation because it took away ways to control the spread of the coronavirus.
“As I have said all along, our response to the pandemic should be about doing what’s best for people, not politics. It should be about following the science and public health experts. It should be about working together to save as many lives as we can,” he wrote in his veto message.
Republicans expressed frustration with the veto.
“It appears Governor Evers cares more about his own power than the people of Wisconsin,” said a statement from Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.
“The governor wants to keep the door open to closing places of worship. He wants full discretion over federal COVID funds without the people of Wisconsin having a voice through their elected representatives. He wants employers to force their workers to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment.”
Evers and Senate Republicans struck a COVID-19 deal in January, but Assembly Republicans were incensed they were not part of the negotiations. They amended the package to include items Evers had previously said he wouldn’t support.
The Senate on Friday approved the doomed measure 19-11 on party lines. Evers swiftly vetoed it.
“What we’re doing is playing two ships pass in the night,” Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said.
Assembly Bill 1 would have put $100 million toward combating the virus and shielded businesses, local governments and schools from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
In addition, it would have banned employers from requiring their workers to get vaccinated; barred health officials from closing churches and other places of worship because of COVID-19; and given lawmakers a say in how federal coronavirus aid is spent. Now, Evers can spend that federal money without consulting the Legislature.
In hopes of inducing Evers to sign it, Republicans included the provision on unemployment benefits.
Republicans a decade ago passed a law requiring unemployed people to wait a week before they could claim benefits. Republicans adopted the policy over Democratic opposition to shore up the state’s unemployment fund.
Last year, the Legislature suspended the one-week waiting period because of the pandemic. Under the law they passed last year, the waiting period goes back into effect on Sunday.
Assembly Bill 1 would have put off when the waiting period starts until March 13.
If Evers had signed the bill, the state would have received an additional $6.5 million in federal aid over the next five weeks to provide unemployment benefits, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Republicans said Evers was at fault for taking money away from the unemployed. The Democrats disputed that idea.
“The Republicans own the one week waiting period. It’s their policy,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, wrote on Twitter.
The tussle over unemployment benefits and COVID-19 relief is playing out amid a broader fight over the state’s mask requirement and federal food assistance.
Republicans this week voted to end Evers’ emergency order and mask requirement, but Evers put a new one in place after they acted. Republicans called Evers’ action illegal and hope the state Supreme Court will address the issue in a case it is now considering.
Ending the emergency order would prevent the state from receiving about $50 million a month in federal food assistance that is available during the pandemic, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.