Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a COVID-19 relief bill Friday after the GOP-controlled Legislature made too many changes to the compromise bill.
Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a COVID-19 relief bill Friday after the GOP-controlled Legislature made too many changes to the compromise bill.

Instead, a GOP-led committee fights an emergency safeguard, even though it will expire by the time the Legislature can officially reject it.

Several hours after the chair of a Republican-controlled committee called the state health department a “rogue agency” for implementing an emergency order last week limiting indoor seating capacity, Gov. Tony Evers sent a three-page letter to Repubilcan leaders saying now is not the time to weaken the state’s response to the coronavirus.

The letter calls out Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) for continuously throwing up legal or legislative roadblocks to every emergency order issued by the administration to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. 

This pattern of behavior is continuing, Evers points out, as the number of COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin approaches 1,500, hospitals are nearing or at capacity, a field hospital is set to open in Milwaukee on Wednesday, and Wisconsin ranks as one of the top hot spots in the country for cases and positivity rates. 

The state set other records Monday, with 950 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 240 of those patients in intensive care units.

“One thing is certain,” said Evers in the letter. “Now is not the time to weaken our state’s response to this virus. Now is the time to strengthen it.”

Evers letter comes the same day as a St. Croix County judge ruled against overturning the statewide mask order. It also comes hours after the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted 6-4 along party lines to ask state Department of Human Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to promulgate, or create, a rule that does the exact same thing as the order she issued Tuesday. 

Evers’ letter requests a meeting with Fitzgerald and Vos and states, “I was disappointed you did not respond to my request for a meeting in June.” Evers then provides five bullet points he would like to discuss if and when they do meet in the near future.

The list started with the order issued by Palm last week limiting indoor seating capacity. 

“I write to you regarding your apparent position on emergency order #3,” said Evers. “As has always been the case throughout this pandemic, I welcome your thoughts and feedback on how we can work together on our state’s greatest challenges.”

Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) cited an Oct. 7 Legislative Reference Bureau memo during the committee meeting that said because the order limiting capacity in restaurants and bars is an order of “general application,” meaning it applies to everyone, the health department should follow the rule-making process. 

“This is not a debate on COVID,” said Sen. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater), co-chair of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules. “This is a debate on whether DHS is following the law. And I would argue they are not following the law. They are breaking the law.”

Palm’s emergency order expires Nov. 6. By law, an agency has 30 days to take all the necessary steps to create a rule. That means the rule will not be ready for committee members to vote on until Nov. 11, five days after the existing emergency order expires. 

The assumption is that the rule will be voted down after Palm creates it. 

Evers addressed the order in the letter by asking Fitzgerald and Vos to come to the meeting with a plan for how they would respond to the pandemic if the order was not in place. He also asks for “you and your allies to withdraw from ongoing litigation to strike down our public health emergency order and the order requiring masks in public places.”

The emergency order that allows the statewide mask mandate to remain in effect lasts through Nov. 21. In a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) said lawmakers would meet to officially end the order, which the legislature has the power to do—but the timeline he shared would shelter the legislators from having to take an on-the-record vote to end safeguards until sometime after the Nov. 3 election. 

The legislature has not met since mid-April, roughly 180 days ago. 

“As this is a matter of imminent, statewide concern, if the senator’s comments are untrue, then I ask you both to please correct the record … and give Wisconsinites across our state the peace of mind knowing the Legislature will not seek to prematurely end this or any possible future COVID-19 state public health emergency until we have a vaccine for this virus,” Evers said. 

Evers also took aim on the partisan behavioral divide that extends from President Donald Trump down to local elected officials.

“As elected officials, you can help by leading by example,” Evers said in the letter. “I would ask you and your members to model this behavior yourselves and please join these efforts by publicly echoing these calls, sharing information from the Department of Health Services, and urging your constituents to follow these best practices so we can all do our part to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.”

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with the argument put forth by Republican lawmakers, agreeing officials with the state Department of Health Services should have followed the emergency rule-making process prior to issuing the safer-at-home order. 

By requesting Monday that Palm follow that process, Republicans have the ability to vote down the new rule rather than taking their chances in court. 

Just prior to the meeting, a St. Croix County judge handed Republican lawmakers a loss in court by ruling he would not overturn the statewide order to wear masks, citing the fact the legislature had the ability to vote to end an emergency order prior to its expiration date. The mask order is in effect through Nov. 21. 

“Unfortunately all we’ve seen from Republicans, from those who are in the majority right now, is to have no plan,” said Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), who serves on the committee. “As a result we are left rudderless as a state and infections continue to grow.”