By SCOTT BAUER
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, urging them to move quickly after not voting on anything related to the pandemic for nine months.
Republicans have shown little interest in accepting the Evers proposal, which he first floated two weeks ago and said includes only items that Republicans have agreed to. 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.
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. Democrats on Monday put forward their own measure, which includes everything in the Evers bill and more that Republicans oppose, like accepting the federal Medicaid expansion money and paid sick leave and hazard pay for health care workers.
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 none planned to attend the in-person ceremony on Monday, said Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hinz. 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. They also want to be able to attend committee hearings and floor sessions virtually.
“We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our health and the health of our loved ones to do our jobs when we have alternatives available,” Hintz said.
If they must be present to vote on bills, Democrats will attend but will not be making “20-minute speeches” or being together any longer than necessary, said Rep. Mark Sprietzer, the caucus chairman.
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.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he expected several Democratic lawmakers to attend the swearing-in ceremony in person.
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.