Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) takes questions by speakerphone from reporters on March 25 about the coronavirus outbreak, the "Safer at Home" order, and concerns about the upcoming April 7 election. (Courtesy: WisconsinEye)
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) takes questions by speakerphone from reporters on March 25 about the coronavirus outbreak, the "Safer at Home" order, and concerns about the upcoming April 7 election. (Courtesy: WisconsinEye)

State Assembly Speaker indicates the Legislature could meet for the first time in more than six months, could support a COVID-19 relief bill.

Days away from an election and just as a new poll shows overwhelming disapproval of the Wisconsin Legislature, its de facto leader indicates he’s ready to end an absence of more than six months and work on a new coronavirus plan for a state besieged by the coronavirus.

“First, we need to take politics out of it and work together to fight the virus,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Obviously, what we’re doing now as a state isn’t working.”

Vos met last week with White House Coronavirus Task Force’s Deborah Birx, shortly after it was revealed Capitol staffers, including his chief of staff, had tested positive for the coronavirus. The visit seems to have made an impact.

For the first time Tuesday, Vos expressed a plan for how the state should address the pandemic. In the email to the Journal Sentinel, Vos said he wants to increase testing in the state, especially the number of rapid antigen testing, a suggestion made by Birx during her visit with Vos. 

Vos’ suggestion that the Legislature take action also comes as supporters of his Democratic challenger, Joel Jacobsen, are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. According to the MJS, Jacobsen bought roughly $409,000 worth of TV time on Milwaukee-area stations for the final week of the campaign. That ad buy is in addition to more than $300,000 in spending by Democratic and progressive groups. 

The Assembly leader’s comments came as the Department of Health Services announced Wednesday another 3,815 new coronavirus infections in Wisconsin, and 45 deaths. The state’s pandemic death toll rose to 1,897. And the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported another new record number of COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization, 1,439, a more than 50-bed increase for healthcare facilities already reaching their capacity.

A new Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed 50% of respondents disapprove of the job the Legislature is doing and only 36% approve. In January, the numbers were nearly reversed, with 52% job approval for the Legislature vs. 31% disapproval.

Vos’ counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), is running for Congress in next week’s election.

More News from Around Wisconsin

Biden and Trump Come to Wisconsin on Friday – President Trump’s campaign announced on Wednesday that the president will hold a rally Friday afternoon at Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay. Gates will open at 11:30 a.m. and Trump is scheduled to speak at 2:30 p.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is also scheduled to visit Wisconsin on Friday. As of Wednesday, details about his visit were unavailable. 

Vice President Mike Pence landed at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee Wednesday afternoon for a scheduled rally. It’s the same site where President Trump spoke on Sept. 17. In the two weeks afterward, according to a USA Today analysis, while the number of Wisconsin’s coronavirus cases grew by 29%, the growth in Marathon County was 67%, and similar spikes were documented in other places where Trump supporters packed tightly together to hear the president say the country was “turning the corner” on a virus still raging across the country.

Big Demand, Not Enough Supplies at Two Testing Sites – As Wisconsin recorded another record number of new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, according to the Department of Health Services, the state’s mounting coronavirus outbreak has led to a spike in demand for testing.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported earlier this week that National Guard testing sites in Rock and Kenosha counties closed early after running out of supplies.

Jen Freiheit, public health officer for Kenosha County, said there’s no statewide shortage of testing supplies like there was back in August. But demand for tests at the National Guard testing sites far exceeded expectations.

Wisconsin Historical Society Honors Former Chief Justice – Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Historical society announced the dedication of the Justice Shirley Abrahamson Reading Room to honor the former chief justice for her 43 years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

After becoming the first woman to be appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1976, Abrahamson went on to serve four 10-year terms. Her 43 years as a justice, and the first female chief justice, amounted to the longest term in Wisconsin’s history. Abrahamson retired in 2019 after she announced the year prior that she was being treated for cancer.

‘Tough Conversations’ in the Future for Racial Disparity Task Force Members — Representatives from law enforcement, social justice, religious, education, and healthcare communities met for the first time Wednesday as members of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ racial disparities task force.

Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee), who at 21 is the youngest member of the Legislature and the task force, said that despite all the hardship brought during the past year, the one thing 2020 has done is get people involved and demanding change.

“People are tired of hearing lip service from elected officials, from both parties,” Haywood said. 

Most of the task force’s 32 members agreed. Members also agreed the issue of racial disparities in Wisconsin is nothing new. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said as a kid growing up in Wauwatosa, he saw what life was like in Milwaukee.

“I’ve seen firsthand just how segregated the city of Milwaukee is,” said Steineke, who co-chairs the task force with Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison). “That has not changed during the years of my life.”

He added that everyone should be prepared for the “tough conversations” that will need to take place to address the racial disparities that plague the state.

“We are here to say enough is enough,” Stubbs said. “For far too long, Wisconsin has been the worst place to raise a Black family.”

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the task force has to act to implement change, as “the status quo is not sustainable any longer.” He said public discourse has become so polarized that most people feel they can not support social justice reform and show support for police officers. 

“I think that is a false choice,” Palmer said.

The goal of the task force is to complete its work and present a package of bipartisan bills to lawmakers by the start of the next legislative session in January. Click here to learn more about the task force and its members.