Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 13, 2021
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — It wasn’t quite the bill they wanted, but Senate Republicans on Tuesday passed a COVID-19 relief package they believe will survive liberal Gov. Tony Evers’ veto pen.
The package, which includes funding for hospitals, provisions to fix the state’s dysfunctional Department of Workforce Development, and COVID-19 lawsuit immunity for schools and businesses, won wide bipartisan support — passing 29-2.
“This is the unified governance our state needs right now,” members of the Senate Republican caucus said in a press release. “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.”
Evers signaled he would sign the relief package, even though it’s a long way from the hefty COVID relief bill he proposed in November. That proposal tipped the spending scales at more than $500 million.
“Although it’s not the COVID compromise we originally proposed, (Assembly Bill) 1 as amended by the Senate is a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic,” Evers tweeted following the bill’s passage. “The Assembly should pass AB 1 as it was amended today and send it to my desk for my signature without delay.”
But Assembly Republicans weren’t happy with the Senate’s final compromise, which pulled out key liberty protections among other provisions in AB 1.
“Instead of listening to our hard-working families, the Senate approved a bill that fails to provide protections for places of worship,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).
The Senate version removed measures that would have prevented government agents from closing places of worship and stopped local, unelected health officers from shutting down businesses without approval from elected leaders.
Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) was the lone Republican voting against the amended bill, which took out a provision preventing employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment.
“The committee changes are meant to placate Governor Evers and stripped from the bill many provisions advanced by Assembly Republicans last week,” Nass said in a statement before Tuesday’s floor debate.
Others voiced similar concerns, but said the goal was delivering much-needed relief for Wisconsinites impacted by the pandemic that Evers would sign into law. Much of what they wanted would have invited Evers’ veto, lawmakers said. Republicans in both houses suggested they would bring back the liberty provisions and other proposals in separate legislation in the coming days.
“In the coming weeks, we will continue the work to open schools, lift gathering bans, and limit the powers of local bureaucrats to shut down churches and main street businesses. We remain committed to these principles and committed to ensuring our state’s best days lie ahead,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg).
Liberal wish list
The lone Democrat to vote against the amended bill was Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee. Larson and his liberal mates pushed a failed amendment that would have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the bill of state taxpayers and businesses. They weren’t satisfied with the $100 million COVID relief fund the Republican version creates.
“Today, we saw the Democrats introduce a liberal wish list that does nothing to impact the spread of COVID but wastes taxpayer resources, reduces accountability and transparency in government, and prevents our economic recovery and prudent return to normalcy,” said Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville).
Senate Democrats sought to remove testing and academic accountability for public teachers, schools and districts.
In arguably the most obtuse statement of the floor debate, Larson suggested there’s nothing wrong with the virtual education that has left so many students behind — particularly low-income and minority students.
“Learning is happening,” he said, blithely adding that “schools are there to teach, not there to test.”
The Assembly version of the bill included a provision requiring local school boards to vote every 14 days to continue virtual learning, and passage must be by a two-thirds vote. The Senate amendment stripped out that measure.
“Why aren’t we following the science when it comes to educating our kids?
Scientists across the globe including Dr. Fauci say the best place for students is IN the classroom,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday in his response to Evers State of the State address.
“Let’s bring students back to school.”
The amended bill does deliver a huge victory for businesses, schools and other nonprofits in the form of COVID-19 lability shield legislation. The protection from what legal experts warn could be a flood of coronavirus-related lawsuits is critical, advocates say, in bringing back Wisconsin’s pandemic-ravaged economy. Fear of operating without the constant threat of lawsuits will give schools, restaurants, hospitals, churches and others greater confidence to reopen, according to the measure’s proponents.
“We’ve heard from service organizations of all political stripes, from employers large and small, from critical industries around our state, that the most important factor in their ability to survive the future is protection against the threat of costly, unfounded litigation,” LeMahieu said.
“Today, the Senate passed a bill which can deliver a win for our state as we work to govern responsibly during this time of turmoil.”