The Wisconsin Capitol building dominates the skyline of downtown Madison in this photo from Jan. 28, 2021. (Photo © Andy Manis)
The Wisconsin Capitol building dominates the skyline of downtown Madison in this photo from Jan. 28, 2021. (Photo © Andy Manis)

State assembly shoots down a compromise deal with Gov. Evers while the Senate nearly costs the state $50 million per month in a rushed vote.

The finish line was visible as the Wisconsin Legislature entered the fourth week of its 2021 session. After weeks of negotiations, Senate Republicans and Gov. Tony Evers had an agreement that Evers would sign the version of the COVID-19 relief package that the Senate approved. All they needed was for the Assembly Republicans to pass the bill as amended, stripped of some controversial provisions in the original Assembly proposal. 

Instead, the Legislature’s first month of the 2021 session ended with Republican lawmakers deciding to backtrack on the COVID-19 package, continuing to signal support for removing face mask safeguards, and pushing other legislation that could hinder, not help, the vaccine rollout.

Rather than approving the compromised clean bill, Assembly Republicans decided to add provisions that would bar employers and health departments from requiring vaccinations and bar health departments from setting occupancy restrictions or closing houses of worship. It also required legislative control over federal COVID-19 funds currently overseen by Evers. 

And while Senate Republicans had reached one agreement with Evers, they were also so anxious to pass a joint resolution to kill the emergency health order and its statewide face mask safeguards that they failed to foresee that doing so would put $40-$50 million per month of federal FoodShare funds at risk. The Assembly had been set to vote on the joint resolution on Thursday, but after the potential financial blunder came to light, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) postponed action until this week’s floor session. 

“When we pass it —and we will pass it—we will pass it in a way that doesn’t have any financial implications for the state,” Vos told reporters.

Earlier: WI GOP Learns Its COVID Agenda Could Cost the State $50 Million per Month

On WISN-TV’s UpFront, Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said on Sunday the Republican claim that the repeal was not about face masks themselves was a “completely bogus argument.”

“The Governor issued subsequent 60-day health emergencies only because the Legislature has absolutely refused to act,” Roys said. “The governor has begged the leadership in the Republican-led Legislature from the beginning of this pandemic to partner with him to help save lives and they have refused to do so. They’ve barely come to work in 10 months. And when they finally show up all they’re trying to do is undermine the most effective public health measure we have.”

‘There’s no guarantee’

In response to the fiasco, the Senate added another provision to the COVID-19 bill that would allow the governor to extend an emergency order, but only for the purpose of receiving funds, not to put in place any public health measures. 

Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) pointed out on WKOW-TV’s Capitol City Sunday that it’s unknown whether an amendment specifically written to capture money without instituting any action related to pandemic safety will pass muster with the federal government. 

“That’s not up to [Vos],” said Erpenbach. “That’ll be up to the federal government as to whether or not we can get a waiver and get that money. There’s no guarantee that just because [Vos] says we can do this that we will get the money.”

The measure would still kill the statewide masking requirement. Over 50 organizations, most of which represent healthcare professionals, have registered in opposition; zero organizations have registered in support. 

Erpenbach also said that, although the bill does include $100 million in relief, he doesn’t think Evers will have any choice but to veto it.

“It was loaded up with all sorts of pet projects from the Assembly that, in all likelihood, the governor is going to have to veto,” Erpenbach said. 

The vaccine blame game

Meanwhile the Assembly did pass two bills that author, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), claimed would help with the vaccine distribution, but they failed to take into account the five hours of testimony before the Health Committee, which Sanfelippo chairs.

Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who is also a member of the Health Committee, pointed out to her colleagues that the real issue in Wisconsin, as well as in other states, is the lack of supply coming from the federal government in the waning days of the Trump administration.

“We cannot get shots into people’s arms any faster unless we have the shots to put in their arms. This bill doesn’t solve the problem that we have,” Subeck said. “What this bill does is it adds more red tape, it adds more confusion, it adds more reporting, more hoops to jump through. It makes administration of this vaccine all the harder. It duplicates efforts that are going on, it adds arbitrary deadlines, dates that don’t make any sense.”

One of those dates was March 15, the date when the bill would require the vaccine to be made available to the general public, whether members of higher priority groups have received their shots or not.

“It’s fine and dandy to say we’re vaccinating the general public by March 15. The reality is if we’re only getting 70,000 shots a week into the state we can’t vaccine the general public by March 15,” Subeck said. “It is an arbitrary date chosen by a legislator. It is not based and rooted in the reality of our situation or in good health delivery or scientific delivery of the vaccine.

Sanfelippo, in response to Subeck’s comments, reiterated the false claim that DHS had not requested the full allotment of vaccines. But Wisconsin, like every other state in the country, does not decide how much vaccine it receives; that is decided by the federal government. The gap between the number of allotted vaccines and the number of shipped vaccines also includes 200,000 doses that are required to be set aside for the federal vaccination program for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. 

Another of the provisions would discard the makeup of the next priority vaccine group, 1B, which DHS approved last week based on the recommendations of the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee (SDMAC). 

Vos, when introducing the bill referred to the SDMAC as a “subcommittee of well-meaning bureaucrats who are prioritizing prisoners over those who are in the age 60+ category.” It is actually composed of doctors and nurses from across the state, many of whom specialize in vaccination. 

This isn’t the first time the panel of medical experts has been under attack from Republican politicians. DHS and committee officials emphasized that their decisions are made based on data, vetted at public hearings, informed by public comments, and provided reasons why a vaccination group was included, its size, and the feasibility of vaccination. The list of priority groups in the Republican bill does not include any of that information. 

The bill also includes a provision that would bar DHS from prioritizing prisoners, even though approximately half of incarcerated individuals in the state have tested positive for COVID-19 at one point and such a provision could be a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment.

January came and went with no relief bill, no action on face mask safeguards, and a finish line that may not even be crossed in February if Republicans can’t trade conflict for compromise as a pandemic rages on.