While the Wisconsin Assembly's top Republican has claimed the COVID-19 plan he unveiled earlier this week had support in both chambers of the Legislature, by Thursday the state was left with no agreement in sight to address the crisis.
Even if Assembly Republicans' plan had support from GOP senators (whose leader, Sen. Devin LeMahieu, said it doesn't), the legislation would have likely faced a veto from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had it cleared both houses in its current form.
"There is a reason that was an Assembly bill and not a Senate bill," LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, told WisPolitics.com.
The Assembly Thursday signed off along party lines on the sweeping bill, which includes measures to bar mandatory vaccinations against the virus, prevent local health officials from closing or restricting business activity for more than two weeks at a time and more. The session, which was scheduled to start at 11 a.m., was delayed for more than an hour and a half as Assembly Republicans caucused.
Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, expressed frustration over the vote before the floor period, telling reporters it's "meaningless" because "we know it's not going to become law."
"The idea that we're here on a day on a bill that the Senate is not going to take up in its current form, that the governor is almost certainly going to veto, despite the lack of workplace safety protocol that we would like to see, makes today even more unnecessary and unfortunately risky," he said.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos, who began the inaugural week of the legislative session by telling his members that the newly announced legislation had support from Republicans in both chambers, didn't immediately return a request for comment.
The vote came a day after Wisconsin logged more than 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, a crisis that so far has only seen one piece of state legislation passed and signed into law to address it. That came last spring, during the opening months of the pandemic.
Amendment seeks to address Senate concerns
Before approving the legislation on a 56-34 vote, Assembly Republicans sought to address some of their Senate counterparts' concerns with a new amendment.
That language, which Vos described as being "relatively technical" in nature, also further curbed the authority of local public health officials to issue COVID-related restrictions.
Under the original bill text, those orders or restrictions would be limited for up to two weeks unless elected officials decided to extend it.
But that language drew fire from Sen. Steve Nass, one of the more conservative members of a Senate Republican caucus that includes lawmakers who range from that end to more moderate, who criticized the legislation in a statement Thursday afternoon.
The way the provision was written, he claimed, would "have the unintended consequence of actually encouraging the shutdown of businesses for a minimum of 14-days without any justification."
"We should not rush to pass a feel-good bill for politicians or special interests," the Whitewater Republican said. "Instead, we should continue working to get a bill that meets the needs of families and protects the civil liberties of our constituents.”
Under the amended language, which passed via voice vote, a local health official's initial order could only last up to two business days, unless the local governing body voted to extend it up to 14 days. The addition also states that nothing included in that part of the bill "shall be construed to confer any authority on a local public health officer to close or restrict capacity in places of worship or businesses."
Vos, R-Rochester, earlier this week said the legislation seeks to “help fight the virus and reopen our economy and our schools,” as he cautioned against placing the Constitution on hold by granting special powers “even during times of a public health emergency.”
The amendment also added tribal nations to the list of employers, businesses, schools and others who would be covered by liability protection tied to any COVID-19-related claims, while further specifying stipulations surrounding the ability of schools to offer virtual instruction in different scenarios, in addition to other provisions.
Multiple COVID proposals floated
The Assembly Republican COVID plan came the same day Assembly Democrats released their own plan that combines a previous draft from Evers with a bill they introduced last year that would provide benefits for certain health care workers, such as hazard pay and paid medical leave, and accept the federal Medicaid expansion dollars — something Wisconsin Republicans have repeatedly rejected.
Evers, meanwhile, is continuing to urge action on his more narrow COVID "compromise bill" that he first floated last month. He re-upped the plan this week as the Legislature convened for the first time in the new year. But Republican leaders have characterized the release of that bill as the governor bringing an end to negotiations.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Evers didn't say whether he'd sign or veto the legislation, claiming he hasn't had a chance to review the text yet. Still, he cautioned if it included some of the same measures that he "absolutely couldn't agree to" found in the last iteration, "the likelihood of a veto is probably pretty strong."
The legislation cleared the Assembly Health Committee Tuesday on an 11-5 party-line vote following a public hearing.
Assembly Republicans' bill in its current form would:
• Prohibit an employer from requiring workers to receive a COVID vaccine or show evidence of having received one.
• Bar the Department of Health Services and local health officials from requiring individuals to receive a COVID vaccine.
• Prevent DHS and local health officials from barring gatherings in places of worship.
• Require two-thirds approval by school boards in order for schools to offer virtual instruction, effective Jan. 11 through the last day of the 2021-22 school year. Under the bill, virtual learning could only last for two weeks, and additional two-thirds votes by the school board would be required to extend it for 14 day-increments.
• Extend the state's suspension of its one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits to March 14. The initial waiver, included in the state’s first COVID relief bill, is set to expire Feb. 7. Evers had looked to extend the provision well beyond that, to July 3.
• Allow an individual to designate an "essential visitor" to enter a nursing home or assisted living facility to visit a resident in compassionate care situations.
• Cover by Jan. 15 COVID vaccinations under the SeniorCare program for elderly individuals and require Medicaid to cover COVID vaccines and tests administered by pharmacists.
• Give dentists the go-ahead to administer COVID and flu vaccines after completing 12 hours of training. Normally, those can only be administered by physicians, physician assistants, nurses, pharmacists and certain pharmacy students.
• Allow the Joint Finance Committee to transfer up to $100 million in certain appropriations for COVID expenses.
• Give the Legislature oversight of the distribution of federal funds that are allocated to Wisconsin related to combating COVID-19. Under current law, the governor is mostly able to unilaterally direct the funds to programs of his choosing. That language could also be a sticking point for Democrats.