Update: Vos Introduces COVID Legislation During First Day of Session

The bill, which the Assembly speaker says could pass by the end of the week, would address local health restrictions and the authority of county health officials to shut down businesses or close schools.

By Zac Schultz

January 4, 2021

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Wisconsin Assembly chamber.

Wisconsin Assembly chamber.

The Wisconsin Legislature kicked off the new biennial session the same way it ended the last, with partisan fighting over how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature’s inauguration is typically a day of formalities and pageantry, where members who were elected the previous November take the oath of office.

Democrats in the Assembly however, objected to the lack of COVID-19 safety measures and were sworn-in virtually by Gov. Tony Evers on Dec. 28.

Assembly Republicans introduced a plan to bring the 99 lawmakers into the Assembly chamber in two separate groups, but Democrats were concerned that masks were not mandatory and declined to participate in the indoor ceremony.

In the Senate, Republicans said members would be brought into the chamber one at a time over the course of the day.

Assembly Democrats and Evers also started the day by again pushing for a COVID-19 relief bill. The last biennial session expired last week and all bills that did not pass must be re-introduced.

Evers sent a letter to legislative leaders asking them to make his COVID-19 relief bill the first bill that is passed. The governor said his bill is made up of proposals that he and Republican leaders already agreed on.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, announced during the legislative inauguration he expects to pass a COVID-19 relief bill by the end of the week. The bill is likely however, to include some proposals Evers has previously rejected.

The text of the Republican’s proposed COVID-19 relief bill includes provisions to make it more difficult for local school boards and health officials to extend orders closing down businesses and schools.

Under current law, a county health officer has the authority to shut down businesses and churches to control a pandemic. Under the bill Vos proposed, they could no longer shut down churches and they can only shut down businesses for 14 days. If they want to extend that order, it would require a vote of the local governing body to extend that order every 14 days. Schools could only be closed for 14 days if the school board votes by a two-thirds majority. That board would need to vote again every 14 days.

The language in the bill specifically refers to the 2019 novel coronavirus, and would not change state law for future pandemics.

Another provision in the bill allows the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee to utilize $100 million in state funds to respond to the pandemic.

The bill would also give the JFC passive review over any federal relief funds sent to the state. Passive review does not require legislative approval for how funds are spent by the Evers administration, but the committee can object and stop the use of funds.

The Republican bill also includes provisions they introduced last December, like requiring the state Capitol to open to the public and the return of state workers to their offices. However, the bill does not have some of the more controversial provisions from that prior bill like requiring school districts to pay parents if they have virtual instruction.

Last spring Republicans sued the Evers administration, arguing the DHS secretary did not have the power to extend the governor’s emergency powers. Republicans said COVID-19 restrictions should be handled at the local level, but also criticized county health officials who issued mask orders or shut down schools.

Speaker Vos said he has an agreement with Republicans in the Senate and plans to pass the bill by the end of the week.

This story was updated to include information from the text of the bill.

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