Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 18, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday released his COVID-19 “relief package” with a half-billion-dollar-plus price tag that would be mainly born by state taxpayers.
While the package isn’t dead on arrival, leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature say many of the Democrat’s bills will face an uphill battle.
Meanwhile, Assembly Republicans held a press conference to release their own ideas to confront the virus, including doubling contact training positions, more funding for healthcare providers, efficient distribution of the pending COVID-19 vaccine, Unemployment Insurance reform and small business assistance. Republicans also want liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits for businesses, schools and other entities.
“We have to get on the same team; the virus is the enemy, not each other. Wisconsin needs some bipartisan answers,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a press release. “These proposals are from our constituents, stakeholder groups and lawmakers.”
Vos said he welcomes discussing legislative initiates with the Senate and the governor.
But politics drove the day, with Evers and his public relations firm — Wisconsin’s mainstream media — complaining that Assembly Republicans scheduled their press conference on the same day Evers released his bills.
Among Evers’ key provisions, a bill allowing the state Department of Health Services to issue an order prohibiting evictions or foreclosures through 2021. What could go wrong?
Newly elected Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delefield) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he doesn’t support the eviction/foreclosure protection bill. He said he’s not excited about any of the governor’s bills, and he’s not sold on the Assembly’s call for doubling contact tracers.
Along with tens of millions of dollars more money to DHS for community testing, contact tracing and public awareness campaigns, Evers’ relief package seeks to bar insurers and pharmacy benefit managers from requiring prior authoritization for early refills of prescription drugs or other such restrictions. That prohibition also would run through next year.
The former superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction also eliminates key accountability measures in K-12 education. Evers proposes canceling “various pupil assessments” in the current school year. His bill also prohibits DPI from publishing school and school district report cards for the 2020-21 school year. So, an administration that has failed miserably on so many accountability measures, is proposing stalling accountability in Wisconsin’s education system.
Evers offers plenty of relief to state employees, extending annual leave benefits to public workers who normally would not be eligible.
And the governor aims to continue the suspension of the one-week waiting period on Unemployment Insurance benefits. Evers and his dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development have taken a public relations beating in their failed handling of a flood of unemployment claims spurred by the pandemic and the state and local health restrictions.
Vos said many of the governor’s bills are a rehash of initiatives funded by the Federal CARES Act earlier this year, many of which were administered poorly. The Legislature approved of the spending measures in bipartisan legislation, giving Evers the flexibility to administer the programs and funds.
“He had the ability to unilaterally move people (employees) around state government to make the unemployment system one of the best in the country,” the speaker said. “Instead, we (meaning the administration) have abjectly failed.”
DWD’s latest UI release shows 72,000 claimants waiting for their claims to be processed, with more than 120,000 issues requiring adjudication.
Vos said he hoped to negotiate a package of bills with the governor’s office by the Thanksgiving break. Much, of course, depends on whether Team Evers wants to drag on their political temper tantrum.
Of overarching concern in a difficult budget year ahead, the speaker said, is that the governor’s relief package heavily depends on state funding. He said he’d like to see what comes out of the final federal relief package, although that process has been bogged down by politics.
“I would prefer to open state dollars last, not first,” Vos said. “I think that’s important for us as we look at what we’re going to do to fund schools next year and all of state government without raising taxes.”