Wisconsin Senate not coming back this month to consider COVID-19 legislation

Published: Dec. 2, 2020 at 3:19 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WBAY/AP) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin Senate won’t take up any COVID-19 relief measures before January, the incoming majority leader said Wednesday, even though Assembly Republicans have said they’re open to coming in this month and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has urged swift action before federal money runs out.

“We’re not coming back in December,” said Sen. Devin LeMahieu, who takes over as majority leader in January.

Assembly members, Republican and Democrat alike, hope that could change.

“There’s been very little willingness on the Republican side to come together and sit down and really talk about what we should do,” said Rep. Amanda Stuck (D - Appleton). “So I don’t think that this will happen certainly before the new year, I think something will most likely happen after the new session starts, but I certainly will hope that Republicans will continue to reach out and work with us sooner than that because we know people and businesses are hurting now and they need relief right now.”

“At this point it appears that the senate is more reluctant to come in and I’m disappointed that is the situation. I’m hopeful they’ll reconsider,” said Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard). “This issue is too important to wait until after January to make some decisions especially because a few of the key provisions that we would be addressing relate to items that expire on Jan. 1 - relating to the copays, relating to some of the testing money.”

The state reported 3,777 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, bringing the total to more than 395,000. The seven-day average of new cases was 3,664, which is down from highs seen in mid-November but still five-times higher than three months ago. The numbers still show high community spread, the state Department of Health Services said.

There were 82 new deaths reported, for a total of 3,502 since the pandemic began.

RELATED: COVID-19 deaths pass 3,500; death rate rising again

The Assembly GOP package includes making it harder for schools to hold virtual classes, protecting businesses and governments from lawsuits, offering weekly rapid antigen tests for home use and continuing to prohibit co-payments for COVID-19 tests. Vos also wants to create a $100 million fund to be controlled by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee to be used for virus response, including paying for testing.

The package of roughly 50 proposals was blasted by Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz as being politically divisive when lawmakers should be finding ways to come together to fight the pandemic.

RELATED: Evers and Republicans meet again to discuss virus response, Vos unveils COVID-19 initiatives

But Stuck says there’s some common ground.

“I think there’s a lot of areas of agreement that we’re hearing about,” said Stuck. “It’s just these points that Republicans are holding on.”

One point of contention in the Republican plan is the requirement for state employees and teachers to work in person again by the end of January, though vaccines aren’t expected to be widely available for some time.

“What we’re anticipating is frontline healthcare workers and people in long-term care facilities are going to be vaccinated by the end of January and then people such as teachers shortly after that will be the second wave of vaccinations,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).

RELATED: US panel: 1st vaccines to health care workers, nursing homes

School districts would also be required to pay parents or guardians $371 if their child spent half their time or more in virtual learning.

Republicans argue students aren’t learning well virtually and that science backs that schools aren’t where COVID-19 is spreading.

“It’s not the place where it is being spread, so it’s important that we take that data, work off the data, we work from the science and we respect it and understand that schools can and should be open,” said Steffen.

“I am a teacher who’s teaching in person right now, and I know that school districts have to make that decision based on the resources they have,” said Stuck. “There’s a sub-shortage, not every district has the resources to make sure classes can be filled, have teachers in the room.”

Another measure that would give the Republican-majority Joint Finance Committee power to veto a DHS vaccination distribution plan also causes conflict.

Some republicans say it’s because they want more legislative oversight with the COVID-19 response.

“[The governor and his administration] had $2.2 billion to assist in that effort that they could spend in any way they wanted without legislative oversight and all we’re saying is going forward the people’s representatives should be more of a part of this process than they have been in the last nine months,” said Steineke.

But Stuck sees that measure as less about oversight from the people’s representatives and more about republicans wanting to gain more party control.

“This is something where we need to come together and really figure out what is the best way to do that and not just make it about political power and who has the power to run it,” said Stuck.

But it’s unclear when the legislature will come together, with the Republican-led senate not planning to meet until next year.

Gov. Evers’ office sent Action 2 News a statement, which said in part:

Deputy Communications Director Britt Cudaback

LeMahieu told The Associated Press in an interview that he has not yet studied a wide-ranging package of coronavirus-related measures released late Tuesday by Assembly Republicans. The proposals put forward by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos were the first since the Legislature last met in April.

“Frankly, I haven’t had the chance to go through it very in depth yet,” said LeMahieu, of Oostburg. “It’s such a new document. I’m sure there are some good things in there we could take a look at.”

Republicans who control the Legislature are at odds on what the next step should be in fighting the virus, which continues to spread across Wisconsin.

LeMahieu said there were “some good things” in the Vos proposals, but he couldn’t say yet what Senate Republicans would support or reject. LeMahieu said the easiest way to move forward is by tapping medical assistance program surpluses that occurred because of an influx of federal relief money.

That surplus is currently $120 million and is projected to grow to $269 million by July, LeMahieu said.

“It’s not new taxpayer money,” LeMahieu said. Senate Republicans have “serious concerns” about any new spending, he said.

The money could be used to pay for COVID-19 testing, including to continue using the Wisconsin National Guard, and for additional overflow care facilities to help ease the strain of patients on hospitals, LeMahieu saud.

Evers met virtually with Vos and LeMahieu on Tuesday. LeMahieu said Evers asked to meet again Thursday and he planned to do that.

Assembly Republicans hope the senate will change course, and take up the proposals sooner.

“So that we can have this debate, have this discussion, and certainly some elements may need to be amended, but the core elements of it relating to continuing free testing, continuing some other elements that have core to our response are incredibly necessary and time-sensitive,” said Steffen.

“You know, the governor put out his proposals we put out ours, we continue to have discussions... so I think the encouraging sign is that there are talks going on,” said Steineke. “Hopefully we can find those areas of agreement and move forward.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 WBAY/The Associated Press. All rights reserved.