Gov. Evers

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called on the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature to pass his proposed COVID-19 relief bill before any other in the session that begins Monday.

Evers renewed his request to lawmakers to take up his proposed compromise, first floated two weeks ago, saying in the face of the ongoing pandemic the Legislature must act quickly. The Legislature has not voted on anything since April, when it passed the first COVID-19 response package early in the pandemic.

“It would be inexplicable after more than 260 days of inaction for any other issue or topic to be taken up by the legislature prior to passing a bill to address COVID-19,” Evers wrote. “The Legislature must move forward to find consensus and pass this bill expeditiously.”

Evers argues that he only included items that both sides could agree on, so there’s no reason not to pass that scaled-back bill and work on other measures later.

But Republicans last month rejected the COVID-19 bill Evers asked lawmakers again on Monday to pass before any other. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in December that he hoped to have agreement on a proposal with the GOP-controlled Senate in early January.

The bill Evers proposed made some concessions to Republicans, like extending hours at the state’s unemployment call center, as well as measures the GOP opposes such as continuing the suspension of a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits that began in July. Evers in November originally proposed a $541 million plan, which Republicans rejected as too costly.

The Evers proposal also does not include dozens of ideas put forward by Assembly Republicans that Democrats oppose, including cutting aid to schools that don’t return to in-person classes.

The Senate and Assembly both planned to meet Monday afternoon to kick off the new two-year session and swear in new members. Republicans return with 60-38 majority in the Assembly and a 20-12 advantage in the Senate. There is one vacancy in each chamber, with special elections scheduled for April 6.

Assembly Democrats were sworn in by Evers virtually last week and many planned to skip the in-person ceremony on Monday. Democrats have raised objections to Republicans not mandating the wearing of masks in the Assembly chamber, or in Assembly hearing rooms and offices in the Capitol.

Masks are encouraged but not required in either the Senate or Assembly for Monday’s swearing in ceremonies. In the Assembly, freshmen legislators will begin the inauguration ceremony seated in the chamber while returning members will be seated in an adjoining parlor. After freshmen are sworn in and sign the Assembly’s register they will be asked to leave the chamber and the returnees will take their oaths of office in the parlor.

Assembly members were allowed to attend virtually in April, but that will not be an option for any proceedings this session, said Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer last week.

In the Senate, lawmakers who are to be sworn in can either attend in person or have it done virtually from their offices. No decision had been made about whether senators will be able to participate virtually going forward.

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin peaked in mid-November and has been declining since, but the seven-day average has been slowly increasing over the past week. To date, more than 486,000 Wisconsin residents have tested positive and 4,875 have died.