Wisconsin’s Legislature this week approved the state’s first relief package in response to the 2019 coronavirus. The bill was more than a month in the making and Gov. Tony Evers signed it into law within hours of its passage in the Senate on Wednesday.
Politicians from both parties praised the measure as a bipartisan success — one where elected officials came to the table and compromised to develop a substantive policy deal — an increasingly rare approach to governance in a state where the Democrats control the executive branch and Republicans control the Legislature.
Democrats and Republican leaders acknowledged the deal as a good first step, but agreed it was imperfect, signaling more legislation was likely as the pandemic continues.
What does this first bill do and what are its limitations? Here’s a breakdown.
What the bill does:
The bill makes it easier for the state and private businesses to respond to COVID-19, mostly by loosening a series of restrictions and providing additional money for the state to use when federal dollars fall short.
• Formally enables Wisconsin to take advantage of $2 billion it was offered as a part of the federal COVID-19 relief bill to boost the Medicaid program
• Waives the state’s one-week requirement to receive money from claiming unemployment benefits for those filing from March 2020 through February 7, 2021.
• Allows counties and municipalities to defer property taxes for residents.
• Requires two reports: one by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation examining the adverse affects of the new coronavirus on variety of state industries, and an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau on how money authorized by the bill was spent.
• Gives $75 million for COVID-19 response to the state’s Joint Finance Committee, the Legislature’s most powerful committee that writes the budget and oversees a variety of government spending. The Evers administration can ask the committee for permission to use portions of it at a time and the committee can approve or deny the request.
• Loosens licensing and training requirements for several kinds of medical workers, including reducing training hours now required to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.
• Allows retired state employees and out of state health care workers to more easily work in Wisconsin to respond to the pandemic.
• Allows the state to transfer government workers from one agency to another to do work as needed to address the pandemic
• Exempts manufacturers, distributors and sellers of emergency supplies that donate or sell products in response to the public health emergency from civil liability associated with injury or death as a result of the products
What it does not do:
The final measure has significantly less spending and is narrower than Evers’ original proposal.
• There are no individual payments or direct benefits to shore up small businesses and specific private industries amid the pandemic.
• There is no funding set aside for specific government programs or agencies to address the effects of coronavirus.
• The bill Evers signed into law included scaled back protections for first responders who are helping COVID-19 patients, a change made by Republicans shortly before the Assembly voted on the measure Tuesday. Republicans removed worker compensation benefits for first responders dealing with the coronavirus, keeping it only for health care workers directly caring for COVID-19 patients, police officers and firefighters who contract the virus. The bill could require first responders to prove they were exposed to the virus in order to claim any state workers compensation benefit.
What were the main points of dispute between Democrats and Republicans on this?
Democrats from both chambers and Evers wanted to spend more money and create a more comprehensive response to the pandemic, emphasizing that it made sense to pass a bill that anticipated longer-term needs and gave the government utmost flexibility to respond as it felt necessary.
Legislative Democrats proposed amendments to the bill totaling more than $1 billion in new spending that would have made allowances for future elections, kept the bill’s provisions in play if Evers extended the public health emergency order or issued a new one.
Republicans said they aimed to rein in costs and said that it was limiting spending because of federal money already available. Removing protections for first responders has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and union leaders.
Top photo: Robin Vos, Speaker of The Wisconsin Assembly, explains proposed legislation as the legislature meets to vote on a bill would give the unemployed more benefits, provide insurance protections for those infected with coronavirus and shield health-care providers from liability, during a session Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)