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Wisconsin Senate passes revised COVID-19 legislation

Gov. Tony Evers urges the Assembly to pass the Senate’s version so he can sign it
Wisconsin Senate chambers (WBAY file)
Wisconsin Senate chambers (WBAY file)(WBAY)
Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 10:29 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2021 at 3:02 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate has overwhelmingly passed a pared-down COVID-19 relief package, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has promised to sign it if it clears the Assembly.

The Republican-led Senate passed the bill Tuesday afternoon 29 to 2, with Senators Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater) the dissenting votes. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) did not vote.

“I’ve been grateful to work together with Republican Majority Leader LeMahieu to find common ground and pass a bill on COVID-19 that reflects a good faith effort in compromise and bipartisanship,” he wrote in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “Although it’s not the COVID compromise we originally proposed, AB 1 as amended by the Senate is a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic. The Assembly should pass AB 1 as it was amended today and send it to my desk for my signature without delay.”

The Wisconsin Senate Republican caucus commented on the bill’s bipartisan support: “This is the unified governance our state needs right now. It’s refreshing to start off the year and legislative session with a comprehensive, bipartisan plan we can confidently share with constituents as we continue to combat COVID-19 and safely re-open our state. We look forward to the Governor signing the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a COVID-19 relief deal in April but did nothing to address the pandemic all summer and fall. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders began talking with each other about a second package late last year but couldn’t come up with an agreement.

Assembly Republicans went ahead and passed their own package last week. Evers said he opposes it. Senate Republicans have taken the Assembly proposal and pared it back, removing numerous provisions Democrats and the governor opposed.

Gone are provisions that would have prohibited local health officials from closing businesses for more than two weeks at a time, required school boards vote every two weeks on whether to continue all-virtual learning; and forced the governor to submit plans for spending federal COVID-19 relief aid to the Legislature and create a plan for reopening the state Capitol building to the public. Evers closed the Capitol in March to prevent spreading the virus.

The Senate bill would still ensure that Medicaid covers COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, guarantee SeniorCare, the state’s prescription drug discount program for senior citizens, would cover vaccinations and college students can satisfy course requirements by volunteering to assist with COVID-19 related work.

But it also contains proposals that Evers and others don’t like, including limiting liability for COVID-19 claims against businesses, schools, governments and health care providers. It also extends the waiver of a one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits only until March 14. Evers wants the waiver extended into July.

(You can read the original Assembly Bill 1 HERE and the various amendments HERE.)

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t immediately respond to a message inquiring about the revised package’s chances in that chamber.

State health officials reported that the number of COVID-19 cases Wisconsin dropped for a fifth straight day Tuesday. The Department of Health Services reported 2,790 newly confirmed cases and 49 more deaths. The state has now seen 511,136 cases and 5,211 deaths since the pandemic began in March. The mortality rate as of Tuesday was 1%.

The Senate session marked the first time the body had convened for a floor vote since April. Democrats began the debate by lambasting Republicans for failing to address COVID-19 for more than 200 days. They introduced resolutions mandating masks in the state Capitol and recognizing Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump as well as condemning Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Republicans rejected both resolutions. No Republicans commented on the mask resolution, but Sen. Roger Roth said he was working on a bill dealing with security at the state Capitol. He did not elaborate.

Tensions are high at statehouses around the country after the FBI warned that right-wing extremists are planning disruptions at state capitols ahead of Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20.

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.