Members of the Senate voted Tuesday, Jan. 12, to pass the COVID-19 relief bill. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
Members of the Senate voted Tuesday, Jan. 12, to pass the COVID-19 relief bill. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Speaker Robin Vos says Senate chose to “cave to the governor’s demands” instead of adopting his Assembly’s version of the bill.

After several conversations and compromises, the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday afternoon passed a COVID-19 relief bill that Gov. Tony Evers said he would sign into law. It could have been passed by the Assembly and sent to Evers as early as Tuesday evening, but Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) chose instead to lash out at his Senate counterpart, leaving the relief bill hanging.

“I’ve been grateful,” Evers said, “to work together with [Senate] Republican Majority Leader [Devin] LeMahieu to find common ground and pass a bill on COVID-19 that reflects a good faith effort in compromise and bipartisanship. “Although it’s not the COVID compromise we originally proposed, AB1 [Assembly Bill 1] as amended by the Senate is a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic. The Assembly should pass AB1 as it was amended today and send it to my desk for my signature without delay.”

Based on Assembly Republicans’ responses to the amended bill, there will probably be a delay as they stand behind the original bill, weighed down with several poison pills that were sure to attract a veto from the governor. They included restrictions on local health officers’ ability to protect their communities, restrictions on local school boards who want to safely conduct classes online, and taking from Evers the control over future federal coronavirus relief funds. 

Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said in a statement that he was “disappointed” with the amended version of the bill which he said, “fails to address so many of the issues we’re hearing from constituents from all over the state.”

“Instead of listening to our hard-working families, the Senate approved a bill that fails to provide protections for places of worship,” Steineke stated. “It fails to allow those who want to opt out of the COVID vaccine to do so. And finally, it fails to prevent local health officers from shutting down local businesses on a whim without approval from elected officials.”

Vos made his comments part of his response to the State of the State address. 

“We [negotiated with Evers] with our Senate colleagues because we wanted to find common ground. It seems, unfortunately that some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave to the governor’s demands,” Vos said. “We will continue to work to a consensus as equals but we will never compromise our conservative ideals in the name of political expediency.”

The Assembly will need to approve the amended bill before it could reach Evers’ desk. The earliest floor session the Assembly has scheduled is on Jan. 26. 

LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) told the Senate Organization Committee on Monday that, “if I were drafting the bill, I would have gone farther,” in limiting public health officials and re-opening schools. But, for the sake of passing legislation, LeMahieu agreed to some compromises. 

One controversial element from the Assembly bill was kept in by LeMahieu—increased immunity from legal consequences for businesses where workers and customers contract the coronavirus due to unsafe conditions.

The Senate on Tuesday, tweaked some of the language around the immunity provision for businesses, school districts, nonprofits and other entities. It’s unclear how the language changes would impact that provision’s application, but apparently those changes were enough to get Evers to endorse the bill. Senators also extended the waiver on the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance. 

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater) were the only two senators to vote against the amended bill, but for sharply different reasons. Larson had proposed an amendment that would have brought the bill closer to what Assembly Democrats had proposed in their COVID-19 relief package but it was rejected. 

“The legislation adopted in the Wisconsin State Senate today to address the COVID-19 pandemic is too little, too late, and also deeply flawed,” Larson wrote in a press statement. “The bottom line is that it is an insult to the people of Wisconsin who have been begging for the legislature to act for nearly 9 months. If this pandemic is a wildfire that’s been raging out of control for 9 months, then this bill is a single bucket of muddy water, which utterly fails to meet the moment we are in.”

Nass ripped into the Senate deal in a Monday statement, calling it weak and ineffective.