The Assembly chamber in the Wisconsin Capitol. (Photo © Andy Manis)
The Assembly chamber in the Wisconsin Capitol. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Evers warns more financial assistance, another bill may be needed to address needs in farming, small business communities

The state Legislature will begin debate on a COVID-19 relief package Tuesday, the first time the body is convening to address the fallout from the virus since the governor declared a public health emergency more than a month ago.

The 87-page bill that Republican lawmakers released Monday includes two components Gov. Tony Evers said were needed for him to support it and the removal an item deemed a “non-starter” in the governor’s mind.

According to the bill, workers who applied for unemployment insurance starting on March 12, the day Evers’ declared a public health emergency, and continuing through Feb. 7, 2021, will not need to wait a week before receiving benefits. 

Another provision supported by Evers is the temporary waiver of several Medicaid requirements, including no longer charging a premium to childless adults on the state’s Medicaid program known as BadgerCare. 

By making that and several other changes, the state is eligible for $150 million in additional funding each quarter, or up to $460 million this year. The deadline for the state to act is Friday.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Evers said he had yet to see the final bill but has seen a draft version. Evers said he was busy in discussions with representatives of the agricultural community and business officials in the Milwaukee area.

Evers said additional state funding in the form of another bill may be necessary to address federal funding gaps to the state’s agriculture and small businesses communities.  

“There is an expectation among small business owners, workers in this state as well as those in the agricultural community – especially them – that the state of Wisconsin can step up and help them out financially,” Evers said. “Hopefully this will not be a one-shot answer to the crisis here in Wisconsin.”

He said both groups spent a fair amount of time talking about stress and mental health issues. These topics need to be “top priorities” moving forward.  

“There is a lot of isolation,” Evers said. “Whether you are a small business owner or a farmer in Barron Wisconsin, issues of mental health are critically important.” 

At a time when gatherings larger than 10 people are discouraged to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Republican lawmakers in the state Assembly plan to meet Tuesday with the option for half its 99 members to attend in person. The others will virtually attend the session through an online connection.

“Representatives have been given a choice to attend either in person or virtually,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R- Kaukauna. “Members who are attending in person, as is customary for legislative sessions, are being asked to follow a set of guidelines to maintain proper social distancing.”

Asked if he thought this was a safe decision, Evers said it was Steineke’s decision.

“I’m sure Steineke knows the dimensions of the Assembly parlor and that folks need to stay 6 feet apart,” Evers said. “It is his call.”

The bill lawmakers will be debating no longer includes a provision that would have transferred greater spending power to the Republican-controlled budget committee and away from the governor’s office. Last week, Evers threatened to veto the bill if it contained this “non-starter.”

Instead, the proposal would allow the budget committee to transfer up to $75 million in certain funding streams toward COVID-19 relief efforts up to three months after the state’s public health emergency declaration ends. 

To provide greater flexibility in reassigning workers to state agencies that may be more involved in responding to the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, the bill authorizes Joel Brennan, secretary of the state Department of Administration, to transfer employees from agency to agency. 

For example, this could provide necessary relief to the state Department of Workforce Development, which has been inundated with calls from the public seeking guidance on how to apply for unemployment benefits. 

“We crafted this bill taking into consideration the governor’s proposals, reacting to legislation passed by Congress, and receiving input from both parties in the Legislature,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. “This bill extends a lifeline to the recently unemployed and provides the Joint Finance Committee flexibility to respond to future challenges caused by COVID-19. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of legislation, but action is desperately needed right now.”

The bill reintroduces a provision that would lower the number of instructional teaching to be licensed as a certified nursing assistant from 120 to 75 hours, which is in line with federal standards. Republicans approved this idea in the session that ended in March but it was subsequently vetoed by Evers

The bill also provides a civil liability exemption for those who manufacture, distribute or sell emergency medical supplies and healthcare providers during the public health emergency. This includes life support devices, personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, to name a few.

The bill also requires the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to submit a report to the Legislature and Evers by June 30. The report will detail how the state will provide support to its major industries, including tourism manufacturing, agriculture, construction, retail and hospitality services. 

Evers also was repeatedly asked if he agreed with a tweet by President Trump over the weekend in which Trump said he, not local officials, would decide when to “reopen businesses.”

“I don’t think that’s an accurate statement,” Evers said. 

Evers added he is not ready to make a statement on whether or not he will extend the safer-at-home order. It is currently set to expire on the morning of Friday, April 24.