Wisconsin Governor Vetoes Coronavirus Relief Bill

Discord remains the rule rather than the exception in Madison, as the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature failed to agree on a Covid-19 relief bill once again.

The Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. (Photo via Vijay Kumar Koulampet/Wikipedia Commons)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The governor of Wisconsin vetoed a Covid-19 relief bill Friday shortly after the Legislature passed it and put it on his desk, leaving the state’s lawmakers and chief executive short of a compromise on how to fight the coronavirus pandemic that has eluded them for almost a year.

Arguing the bill presented to him would actually limit the state’s response to the pandemic, Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, said in a statement that “Wisconsinites know a compromise when they see one, and this isn’t it.”

The governor noted he and the GOP-majority state Senate “had a bill that Republicans and Democrats supported—and one that I said I would sign if it was sent to my desk…unfortunately, Republicans once again chose to put politics before people, abandoned that compromise, and passed a bill they knew I wouldn’t sign.”

Evers concluded his veto statement by calling on Republicans to send him that compromise version again.

The Senate concurred with Assembly Bill 1 earlier on Friday in a 19-11 vote along party lines, one day after it passed the Assembly. Senate Republicans and Evers had ironed out tentative middle ground after the governor introduced his own $541 million proposal in November, eventually arriving at a $100 million bill Evers felt he could live with.

This came after the Assembly’s bill was first unveiled on Jan. 4 and substituted by an amended Senate version that removed multiple measures Evers opposed. Two weeks after that deal was struck, the Assembly amended the bill again, adding back many of the parts Evers considered non-starters before passing it on to the Senate on Thursday.

Lawmakers originally planned to take up the matter in mid-February, but said Thursday that the bill had to be signed by Feb. 7 in order to meet a requirement to get $6.5 million in federal pandemic unemployment assistance. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R- Oosterburg, warned in a tweet ahead of Evers’ veto that the governor’s action “would take $6.5 million directly out of pockets [of] families who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.”

Evers’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the $6.5 million in unemployment assistance jeopardized by non-passage of the bill on Friday.

The governor also did not immediately clarify which parts of the bill led to his veto, but the proposal did include a provision to shield businesses, schools and government entities from liability in any coronavirus-related lawsuits, widely thought of as a poison pill since early negotiations.

The bill also would have prohibited the state Department of Health Services and local health officials from making people get a Covid-19 vaccine, prevented health officials from closing places of worship due to the coronavirus, required the governor to make a plan to open the state capitol to the public and given a Republican-controlled finance committee an expanded role in how federal Covid-19 funds are spent, normally the governor’s prerogative.

School boards also would have had to meet every two weeks to get a two-thirds vote to approve virtual instead of in-person instruction under the vetoed legislation. It additionally would have extended until mid-March a freeze on the statutory one-week waiting period for people filing unemployment claims, a measure enacted by the Legislature the last time they passed a coronavirus bill, or any bill, almost 300 days ago in April.

In a joint statement, LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, charged that “it appears the governor cares more about his own power than the people of Wisconsin.”

“By vetoing the bill, Governor Evers is saying no to getting more vaccinators in the pipeline by allowing dentists and pharmacy students to administer the vaccine. He is saying no to giving parents the ability to transfer their students to school districts that offer in-person learning. And he’s saying no to protecting schools and businesses from frivolous lawsuits,” the Republican leaders said.

While Wisconsin’s weekly averages of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been declining in the last month, the state tallied 1,266 new cases and 28 deaths on Friday, according to the Department of Health Services. Those totals now sit at 548,221 and 6,020, respectively.

Coronavirus relief bill aside, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic governor have fought nonstop for the past year over whether Evers can exercise executive authority to enact multiple public health emergencies related the virus and make people wear masks in public, indoor spaces. Evers issued a new emergency order and mask mandate on Thursday, but only after the Legislature passed a resolution throwing out existing ones on the basis that they were unconstitutionally enacted.

Currently pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court—the de facto referee between Evers and the Legislature on the state’s Covid-19 response—are Republican-backed lawsuits over public gatherings limits, a previous mask mandate and a broader action seeking to tighten the limits of Evers’ overall executive authority. Rulings in those are anticipated in the coming weeks.

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