Gov. Tony Evers is calling on Wisconsin's two Republican legislative leaders to act "expeditiously and without delay" on COVID-19 relief legislation the Democratic executive says amounts to a "compromise bill" among the trio.
The proposal, which includes measures to cover vaccinations under the SeniorCare program for elderly individuals, extend unemployment insurance call center hours and allow the Legislature's powerful budget committee to move money around to cover public health expenses, represents a collection of provisions Evers said lawmakers "have been able to find some agreement" on.
"Moving forward on these provisions results in a piece of legislation that responds to some of the needs of Wisconsinites," Evers wrote in a letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu Monday. "Therefore, I believe we must forward with a bill based on the items we can agree on, and it is imperative that the Legislature do so expeditiously."
The legislation comes more than a month after Evers first unveiled his COVID relief plan, which sought to temporarily bar evictions and foreclosures while continuing to waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits and more — measures that aren't part of the compromise bill.
At the time, Evers pushed the Legislature to take up the bill before the end of the year, but neither chamber has convened in the interim. In his letter, he expressed disappointment at the lack of action, writing that Wisconsinites "deserve the legislature to reconvene and pass legislation that addresses the continuing needs of our response to COVID-19."
Vos and Assembly Republicans a few weeks ago floated their own collection of 50 ideas to address COVID-19, including provisions that would give the Joint Finance Committee oversight over the state's plan for distributing COVID-19 vaccines, require school boards to pay parents whose children are taught virtually, compel executive branch employees to return to work in-person, bar local health officials from ordering business closures or imposing capacity restrictions and more. Evers has dismissed some of those measures as "poison pills."
While many of the provisions Evers had included in his initial bill weren't transferred to the compromise legislation, the governor Monday also shared with Republican leaders a second bill draft he wants them to continue discussing with members, which includes the more than $500 million in state funds he initially sought to cover continued COVID testing, contact tracing and grants for small businesses.
"To be clear, this list is not perfect. I would certainly hope for more support to our state’s continued response to the pandemic, and it is unfortunate there seemed to be no appetite from your caucuses on other items such as ensuring those impacted by COVID-19 aren't evicted from their homes, requiring insurers to cover all telehealth services, easing work search requirements for those who have lost their jobs and can’t find new work, and making it easier for healthcare workers exposed to COVID-19 to claim workers compensation," Evers wrote in his letter.
Vos, R-Rochester, statement bristled at Evers' letter in a statement, saying it's the governor's responsibility "to work with us and negotiate a Covid package, not just give us his summary of where he thinks we are."
"I would hope he’d reconsider his decision to walk away from the table," Vos added. “Assuming he continues this path, I look forward to continuing the discussion with the Senate so that we have a final bill early next month.”
Vos had previously eyed December as a time to convene and pass a second COVID relief bill, and he said in the statement "it’s too bad we weren’t able to meet that goal."
An aide to LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Among the provisions in the compromise bill is Vos' and Assembly Republicans' plan to allow the Joint Finance Committee to transfer up to $100 million from sum sufficient appropriations toward expenditures related to the public health emergency.
The legislation also would require the Department of Workforce Development, which has been under scrutiny for its slow response to resolving unemployment benefit claims after receiving a crunch of applications during the initial months of the pandemic, to extend its unemployment call center hours to 12 per day, seven days a week. That would continue until the weekly time for processing those claims matches the levels from January and February 2020, before the pandemic.
The legislation would also require DWD to publish a plan to address the backlog of unemployment claims within 30 days of the bill's publication in order to hit processing times the agency hit this time last year.
And it would tweak state law to allow first- and second-year pharmacy students to administer COVID-19 vaccines, and authorize the transferring of state employees from any agency to another, among other things.
The Wisconsin Legislature passed its first and only pandemic-related bill last spring. That bill suspended the state's one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits until Feb. 7, 2021, and allowed Wisconsin to capture millions in federal dollars to buoy its welfare program, among other things.