Empower Wisconsin | Dec.3, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Assembly Republicans rolled out their COVID-19 relief package this week, with bills designed to get state government workers back to work, students back into classrooms, and more health care workers fighting the virus.
The package also offers long sought-after coronavirus liability protections for schools and businesses. And it gives the Joint Finance Committee the power to cut the salaries of Department of Workforce Development administrators if they fail to fix the backlog of Unemployment Insurance claims that have forced thousands of out-of-work Wisconsinites to wait months for benefits.
“After working through ideas and discussions with Assembly GOP members, we have created a robust package to address the critical needs of our state,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) in a press release.
One provision specifies that any state employee in the executive branch — with the exception of the UW System — must get back to the offices the state’s taxpayers are paying for. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in March, thousands of Evers administration employees have been working from home or offsite locations. It’s one of many of the health edicts Gov. Tony Evers has issued. State employees who get a note from a licensed physician or assistant may continue to work form home — until a vaccine is widely available.
Another measure aims to open schools and pay parents who have watched their children muddle through inadequate virtual eduction. The bill would require districts providing virtual instruction during the current school year to pay $371 to the parent or guardian of the student. It would apply to schools that have gone virtual for at least 50 percent of the semester.
School boards also would have to approve virtual learning by a two-thirds majority, according to another bill. The requirement would run from next month through June 30, 2022. Even with the supermajority, schools boards would only be able to approve virtual learning for 14-day periods, and each extension could not be longer than two weeks.
Beginning next month, teachers would have to teach from school buildings, not from their homes, unless they have an exemption.
State Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), said Assembly Republicans wanted to focus on education priorities in the relief package.
“We know it’s important to have students in the schools,” Born, who on Wednesday was appointed co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, told Empower Wisconsin. “And it’s been one of our focuses getting state workers back to work like a lot of others are.”
The package includes a $100 million fund to respond to the pandemic. It calls for the doubling of local public health staff working on the COVID-19 response, including contact tracers, an idea that doesn’t sit well with some conservatives.
While the package creates legislative oversight of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine distribution system, it prohibits the Department of Health Services and local health officers from requiring the vaccine. It also prohibits employers from requiring their employees to get a shot as a condition of employment.
Many of the provisions would appear to face stiff resistance from Evers. The Democrat last month unveiled his own COVID-19 relief package, with a half-billion-dollar-plus price tag, mostly funded by state taxpayers.
Vos said Assembly Republicans are ready to act before the end of the year.
The Assembly GOP package includes:
- Create of a $100 million fund to respond to the public health emergency
- Double the number of local public health staff working on the COVID-19 response
- Offer weekly rapid antigen tests for home use
- Continue the prohibition of co-payments for any COVID-19 tests
- Establish legislative oversight of vaccine distribution plan
- Provide guidelines for state employees to return to work
- Reauthorize state employee transfers
- Establish limited liability for schools, businesses and local governments
- Allow for an essential family member/caregiver to visit a loved one in nursing homes in specific circumstances
- Re-establish personal electronic computing device grants for schools ($9 million)
- Require teacher instruction from school buildings by end of January, providing exceptions
- Require school board approval of virtual instruction by two-thirds vote of the board
- Provide payments to parents of $371 (half of the per pupil aid increase for the year) for students who have had at least 50% virtual instruction since September
- Allow health service providers from other states to practice in Wisconsin
- Require UW System to provide credit to students who assist in the COVID-19 response
- Create of business grants for the hospitality industry
- Require the Department of Workforce Development to eliminate the backlog of unemployment insurance claims