By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers signed a sweeping coronavirus relief package Wednesday, setting aside reservations that it doesn’t go far enough to help at-risk workers, small businesses and farmers in order to deliver at least some help for state residents.
The governor had until Friday to sign the bill to lock in extra federal aid for the state’s Medicaid program. His administration has spent days negotiating the details of the package with Republican legislative leaders.
He ripped the final version in a statement, complaining that it doesn’t provide hazard pay or worker’s compensation to first responders, childcare providers and health care workers and doesn’t do anything meaningful for small businesses and farmers.
“The bill I will sign falls short of what is needed to address the magnitude and gravity of what our state is facing, but I am not willing to delay our state’s response to this crisis,” Evers said.
The bill largely ensures that Wisconsin can capture the $2.3 billion allocated 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 until up to 90 days after the public health emergency ends.
The measure also would waive the state’s one-week waiting period to receive unemployment for anyone who applies between March and Feb. 7, 2021, and ban certain insurers from prohibiting coverage based on a COVID-19 diagnosis. Furthermore, it would ease the licensing and credentialing processes 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 Assembly passed the measure 97-2 on Tuesday during what was the Legislature’s first ever virtual meeting to comply with social distancing guidelines. Two-thirds of the body’s 99 members voted via videoconferencing, while the rest voted from scattered seats around the chamber, sometimes with rows of empty seats between them.
The Senate followed suit with its first-ever virtual meeting on Wednesday. The session was run out of a hearing room on the Capitol’s fourth floor. Senate President Roger Roth, a Republican, and Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling were the only senators in the room, along with Chief Clerk Jeff Renk’s staff. Everyone was seated at least 6 feet apart. The rest of the Senate appeared via videoconferencing from their homes or Capitol offices.
The technology was shaky, with lags between Roth initiating contact with senators and their responses. Senators voted by clicking a button on their screens; one of Renk’s staffers had to read off their votes to Roth, who cautioned senators several times that if they thought their vote was recorded incorrectly they should notify Renk by email.
Democrats complained bitterly about the approach. Sen. Chris Larson said the set-up was frustrating. Sens. Lena Taylor and Tim Carpenter both complained that Roth never let them speak. Carpenter issued a statement to media outlets during the middle of the session complaining that Roth had barred him from attending the session in-person in the hearing room, and Taylor was the only senator who didn’t cast a vote. She said in a phone interview that Roth wouldn’t allow her to vote.
“I’m just stunned that someone could be so inhumane,” Taylor said. “He denied democracy in Wisconsin. He denied the people dying.”
Roth said in a phone interview after the session had ended that all the senators understood there wasn’t room to maintain social distancing in the Senate chamber or in the hearing room and that only he, Shilling and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald would be allowed to attend in person. Fitzgerald opted to appear via videoconferencing from his office.
“Anyone who is shocked or outraged, it’s just a load of malarkey at this point,” Roth said.
Carpenter tried to speak during roll call votes when comments aren’t allowed or after Fitzgerald had made motions that weren’t debatable under Senate rules, Roth said. As for Taylor, she apparently couldn’t unmute her line, he said. The Legislature’s techs tried to help her but couldn’t get her connected, he said.
In the end, the chamber approved the bill 32-0, with Taylor the only senator who didn’t cast a vote.