Updated Tuesday 7:31 a.m. CST
Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature introduced a sweeping COVID-19 bill on Monday, the first day of the session, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said lawmakers will fast track it and pass it later in the week.
The measure, which would prohibit mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19, got a lukewarm response from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who didn't say whether he would sign or veto the bill. Evers had been working with Republicans for weeks on a measure both sides could agree to, but Republicans on Monday ditched that potential compromise.
The Republican coronavirus proposal differs in many ways from what Evers called on the Legislature to pass, although it also includes many ideas Democrats support. Evers' spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said it was “disappointing” that lawmakers weren't taking up what the governor put forward.
“Wisconsinites deserve legislators who will put politics aside and work together to do what’s best for the people of our state,” Cudaback said.
Under the Republican bill, unemployed people could receive benefits immediately, instead of waiting a week, through March 14. The waiver of the waiting period has been in place since March 2020, early in the pandemic. Evers had wanted to extend the waiver until July.
Many other Republican ideas previously put forward that Evers and Democrats opposed, like penalizing schools that don't open for in-person classes, aren't in the GOP bill. The measure also includes a civil liability exemption for COVID-19 claims, which Democrats oppose, and does not prohibit evictions and foreclosures as Evers wanted.
The bill would also prevent local health officials from closing or restricting business activity for more than two weeks at a time. It would require a two-thirds vote by school boards to approve virtual instruction instead of in-person. That would also only be valid for only 14 days at a time.
The Assembly Health Committee planned to hold a Tuesday hearing and vote on the bill, with the full Assembly voting Thursday. The Senate could also vote that day and send the bill to Evers.
The Legislature has not passed a bill since April, when it approved the first COVID-19 response package early in the pandemic. Evers and Democrats have been urging Republicans to take swift action to combat the virus.
Democratic lawmakers put forward their own measure that is doomed to fail. It 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.
Republicans also voted, in one of their first actions this session, to require Evers’ administration to open the state Capitol to the public. It has been closed throughout the pandemic. The resolution does not require people in the building to wear masks or socially distance and Evers did not immediately say whether he would comply or fight the resolution.
The new session kicked off Monday with Assembly Democrats skipping a swearing-in ceremony, citing the lack of a mask mandate for those on the Assembly floor. They were sworn in last week virtually. Republican lawmakers wore masks Monday, and stood at a distance, as they were sworn in by a mask-wearing Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.
However, they briefly took off their masks when posing for pictures while they each individually signed a book at the front of the chamber signifying the start of their terms. Those who spoke on microphone, including Vos, removed their masks when talking.
Assembly Democrats are pushing Republicans for a mask mandate in the chamber and hearing rooms, as well as to allow for virtual participation in committee hearings and floor sessions when bills are debated and voted on.
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, most Republicans went without masks during Monday's swearing in ceremony while Democrats wore them. Some Democrats were present in the chamber while others connected remotely. No decision had been made about whether senators will be able to participate virtually going forward.
“Anybody in this body who is not wearing a mask does not care about my father” who is susceptible to the virus, said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor.
Republicans returned Monday 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.
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, nearly 488,000 Wisconsin residents have tested positive and 4,884 have died.