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Home / Government / Assembly OKs COVID-response bill to end one-week wait for benefits (UPDATE)

Assembly OKs COVID-response bill to end one-week wait for benefits (UPDATE)

In a first-of-its-kind virtual meeting, lawmakers in the Wisconsin Assembly passed COVID-19 response bill that would both waive a waiting period for unemployment benefits and hold down until the end of 2021 the taxes employers pay to provide those benefits.

The vote sent the legislation to the state Senate, which is expected to vote on it Wednesday. One impetus behind the bill is to ensure the state’s unemployment-insurance system stays shored up even as the state’s economy remains largely shutdown in response to the coronavirus, leaving more than a quarter of Wisconsin residents without jobs.

Besides suspending the one-week waiting period, the latest proposal would direct Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman to seek advances to the state’s unemployment reserve fund from the federal government. That money would allow the tax rate that employers pay to provide unemployment benefits — now at a historical low — to remain in effect until the end of 2021.

A separate provision would direct the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to submit a report to the Legislature and Evers by June 30 providing a plan to assist major industries — including construction — that have been harmed by the outbreak.

“There’s an expectation on the part of small businesses owners and workers in the state that the state of Wisconsin can step up and help them financially,” Gov. Tony Evers said earlier in the week. “Hopefully this will not be a one-shot answer.”

Evers had objected to an earlier version of the bill containing a provision that would have given the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee power to make any spending reductions it wanted. Evers had himself released a pair of alternative proposals that would have put at least $700 million toward combating the coronavirus. GOP leaders then dismissed the proposal, saying it would spend too much and that the state should instead rely on money from a federal stimulus package.

The bill would also increase the state’s bonding authority — although it’s missing a provision previously proposed by Evers to allow the State Building Commission to borrow $100 million for cost overruns if state construction projects are delayed amid the outbreak.

Evers had likewise proposed a $50 million grant program that health care providers could use to build temporary spaces for coronavirus patients. But that proposal also isn’t in the bill the Legislature plans to take up this week.

This is not the first action state officials have taken to make it easier for people to obtain unemployment benefits. In March, Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order abolishing a requirement that had forced people receiving benefits to look for work. He has also called for getting rid of a rule that now requires people to wait a week after their losing their jobs to begin receiving benefits but can’t take such a step without the Legislature.

The Wisconsin Assembly overwhelmingly approved a sweeping coronavirus relief bill Tuesday during a virtual session, the first time state lawmakers have gathered since the pandemic began in the United States.

Tuesday’s session took place in the Assembly chamber as usual, but because of concerns about spreading the virus, nearly two-thirds of the body’s 99 members attended using a videoconference. The Senate was to hold a similar session on Wednesday to send the bill on to Gov. Tony Evers.

It marked the first time in Wisconsin’s 172-year history that lawmakers convened a session with members participating remotely. Legislative rules require lawmakers to be present to debate and vote on bills, but a 2009 law allows for virtual sessions during disasters.

One section of the Assembly gallery was open to the public. Only 14 seats were open and each was about 6 feet apart from the others. Public seating, also 6 feet apart, was on offer in the Capitol rotunda. Two large TV screens, tuned to Skype, were set up on the Assembly chamber floor. About 35 members sat in the chamber, all spaced several seats apart. Many rows were empty. Several pages wore face masks, as did Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz. He was the only Democrat on the floor.

The session got off to a slow start as Chief Clerk Pat Fuller tried to call the roll. Lawmakers joined from their kitchens, Capitol offices and home offices and struggled to unmute themselves and register their attendance before Fuller moved on to the next legislator. Some seemed amused at the setup, smiling and waving to the camera. Others initially appeared befuddled, apparently unable to hear or to figure out how to be heard. Roll call votes took minutes as Fuller asked each lawmaker individually for his or her vote. Normally, voting is almost instantaneous as lawmakers signal their votes from their seats with the touch of a button.

Moments before adjourning for a 10-minute receess, Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August warned lawmakers not to touch their laptops during the break because if they disconnected themselves they wouldn’t be able to log back in. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the few legislators on the floor, said setting up the virtual session was “extremely challenging” and he hoped the Assembly would never have to meet that way again.

The process became smoother as the session progressed. The chamber ended up approving the bill 97-2.

The legislation largely ensures that Wisconsin can capture the $2.3 billion coming to the state under the federal stimulus bill, including higher Medicaid payments and unemployment benefits. The Legislature’s budget committee would be allowed to allocate up to $75 million in funding during the public health emergency and up to 90 days after it ends.

The proposal would also ban certain insurers from prohibiting coverage in response to a COVID-19 diagnosis; ease licensing and credentialing for health care workers; reduce nurse training hour requirements; and render health providers immune from civil liability for services provided during the pandemic. Local municipalities also could choose to defer their residents’ property tax payments.

– The Associated Press contributed to this story

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