Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) holds a Capitol press in November.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) holds a Capitol press in November.

Highest single-day loss of life is met by Wisconsin Republicans with a call to study ideas. Legislature hasn’t met in seven months. 

The same day Wisconsin saw a single-day record of 92 of its residents die from the coronavirus, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos stood at a Capitol press conference billed to discuss “new legislative initiatives,” and proceeded to deliver nothing. 

“We do not have bill language drafted. We do not have specific provisions that we are offering like he does,” Vos (R-Rochester) told reporters in reference to Gov. Tony Evers. 

Instead, Vos said he held the press conference because Evers has two or three press conferences a week and the Assembly Republicans “should have the chance to hold news conferences” to discuss the ideas they support. 

Evers and the state’s top health officials have been holding multiple press conferences per week since the start of the pandemic to provide updates on the virus and keep the public informed. 

On Tuesday, Evers sent Republican lawmakers draft copies of a COVID-19 bill package. In addition to the bills, Evers pointed out that when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, funds at the end of December, roughly $446 million in funding will also disappear. 

This include $255 million for COVID-19 testing supplies and lab diagnostics, $105 million for hospital surge capacity, $58 million for COVID-19 testing, $36 million for contact tracing, $10 million for vaccine distribution, and $2million for the public service announcement, “You Stop the Spread.”

It would require an act of Congress to pass another round of COVID-19 relief funding, an action that ironically may be less likely to happen with promising news of potential vaccines, even though families, workers, businesses, and economists have clamored for more assistance.

If Congress fails to act, it will be up to the state to find money in its upcoming budget to fund contact tracing efforts, testing, vaccine distribution, and all other measures necessary to fight a pandemic that has now infected roughly 324,000 Wisconsinites, left nearly 2,300 Wisconsin residents dead, and is packing hospitals beyond capacity. 

Yet, seven months after the GOP-controlled Legislature last met in April, Vos had nothing to show for the time lawmakers were not in session.

“We did not draft a bill. We do not have specific drafted proposals,” Vos told reporters at the beginning of the press conference. “Our intention was to sit down with the governor and actually talk about our ideas, putting a bill together as a whole.”

Vos referred to Evers’ draft copy of 19 COVID-19 bills as “mostly a rehash” of what legislators did last spring. Last spring, the Legislature did pass a COVID-19 relief package. In addition to approving federal funds for state agencies, the spring package contained a last-minute amendment that makes it more difficult for first responders to receive workers compensation if they became infected with COVID-19. 

In the package of bills introduced by Evers, all workers, including healthcare workers, would be allowed to claim worker’s compensation benefits if they contract the coronavirus while at work.

This time around, Vos wants  to increase limited liability protections for school districts, small businesses, and local governments who “are doing things the best they can”  from potential lawsuits. 

“They are afraid of being sued for even doing things to the best of their ability but still have somebody second guess their decisions and spend a whole lot of wasted time and effort on lawsuits that don’t necessarily help to deal with the pandemic.” 

But it has been Republican lawmakers or conservative-leaning law firms that have been doing the suing,  seeking to overturn each public health emergency order the Evers’ administration has issued since the start of the pandemic. 

The safer-at-home order was overturned in May, an order to limit indoor capacity to 25% at bars and restaurants was struck down in October, and oral arguments on the statewide mask requirement were held Monday in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A ruling will be made soon. 

He said he favors increasing the number of contact tracers at the local health department level, and suggested asking medical and public health school students to work for a semester as contact tracers. Vos said the students would be paid and earn class credit.

Vos also suggested asking workers receiving unemployment benefits who can’t find work if they would be willing to work as contact tracers. 

The bills Evers put forward would continue the suspension of the one-week waiting period before people can collect unemployment insurance and would prohibit evictions and foreclosures through 2021. Vos, who as of 2019 owned 23 rental properties in Whitewater worth $3.8 million, said that bill from Evers “wouldn’t be good for the economy.”

“I think it is very unlikely that we will say, ‘You don’t have to pay your rent until some time in 2021,’” said Vos. “That’s probably not something we are looking to say, ‘It’s ok to not pay your rent.’”

Vos stressed he would like to meet with the governor before Thanksgiving. He did not rule out calling the Legislature into session in December to vote on a package of bills that lawmakers and the governor could agree upon.