View From the Press Pit – Media members cover the opening day of the Wisconsin Legislature's 2021-2022 session in the Assembly chamber at the state Capitol in Madison. The gallery above, normally filled with families, friends, and staff, is sparse due to COVID-19 restrictions and Democratic members conducting their inaugurals largely online. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
View From the Press Pit – Media members cover the opening day of the Wisconsin Legislature's 2021-2022 session in the Assembly chamber at the state Capitol in Madison. The gallery above, normally filled with families, friends, and staff, is sparse due to COVID-19 restrictions and Democratic members conducting their inaugurals largely online. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

Evers said he would likely veto a bill that includes some relief measures but also several poison pills.

Assembly Republicans pushed through their COVID-19 relief package on Thursday, less than 100 hours into the new legislative session. But there’s no sign that the state Senate will take it up or that Gov. Tony Evers would sign it into law. 

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) told the Associated Press that the Senate does not support the bill, which passed in the Assembly on a party line vote, 56-34. Even if it did pass the Senate, Evers told reporters on Wednesday that, barring significant changes to the bill, “the likelihood of a veto is probably very strong” due to provisions that include restrictions on safeguards and broad legal immunity for businesses that don’t take adequate precautions to protect workers and customers from COVID-19.

At a news conference ahead of the Assembly floor hearing, Minority Leader Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) called a vote on the bill, “an unnecessary political exercise.”

“[The bill] also goes well beyond things that I would consider any kind of public health response, with measures that seem to be ideological, that are certainly on a wishlist of special interest groups,” Hintz said. 

Democrats demonstrated the differences between the two sides by forcing Republicans to vote down a substitute amendment based on their own COVID-19 relief package which would have:

  • Required hazard pay and paid leave for frontline healthcare workers
  • Provided state-sponsored healthcare access for uninsured healthcare workers
  • Required worker’s compensation for critical employees who contract COVID-19
  • Waived student assessments for the 2021-22 school year
  • Implemented a grant program for food banks, food pantries and other nonprofits working against food insecurity, run by the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
  • Extended the waivers on work search and waiting period requirements for unemployment insurance through Jan. 1, 2022
  • Expanded Medicare

Speaking in favor of the amendment, Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) said, “Wisconsinites are counting on us to battle the virus, not each other.”

Wisconsin health officials have warned that some of the provisions in the Republican bill could lead to further illnesses and deaths from the virus. Newly-elected Rep. Sara Rodriguez (D-Brookfield), a nurse, epidemiologist, and public health expert, reminded her colleagues that “this pandemic is not over just because we want it to be over.”

“After eight months of inaction we need a bill that’s more comprehensive than the one that’s being debated here today,” Rodriguez said. “[Democrats] offered common-sense solutions but they were rejected. So now we are left with the final proposal that leaves our state’s biggest COVID-19 needs unmet and instead with policies that won’t help us recover.”

Legal experts have also come out against the Republican bill, saying it offers legal immunity for exposing employees or clients to COVID-19.

“So many businesses have made a concerted, Herculean effort to protect their employees and customers. I am flummoxed as to why my colleagues on the other side of the aisle would offer immunity to the very few bad actors who have not taken this pandemic seriously,” Rodriguez said. “While running for office, I heard from many people who felt compelled to choose between their health or putting food on the table. We should not be putting forth legislation that rewards those bad actors and forces more people to make that choice.”

Republicans voted along party lines to reject the Democratic amendment. 

During the floor debate on the bill, Democrats Vining and Rodriguez spoke while wearing masks and eye protection. Every Assembly Republican who spoke on the bill, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls), Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield), and Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) spoke while unmasked.