Update 3:26 p.m.
After little floor discussion, the full Wisconsin Senate has approved the bill and Governor Evers has announced he will sign the bill.
State leaders seem to be falling over one another, trying to enact COVID-19 relief legislation. The Legislature passed the first, and only, coronavirus bill in April.
Many of its provisions are timing out, as the pandemic continues to pummel Wisconsin.
But recently, a number of proposed measures have emerged. Republicans dismissed ideas offered by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Then last week, the GOP-led Assembly passed its own bill. On Monday, a committee unveiled a Senate version.
At a public hearing Monday, Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said he hoped it would be a compromise everyone could agree on.
Senator Janis Ringhand is one of two Democrats on the five member Senate Committee on Senate Organization. It took up the latest coronavirus relief measure.
As the 11 a.m. public hearing began, Ringhand said she had little time to read the brand-new proposal. “I had no knowledge of this meeting prior to quarter to eight this morning and I have concerns, grave concerns about conducting meetings this way, pulling it together so quickly,” she said.
Committee Chair and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu’s response was conciliatory: “You can blame the new majority leader for a little bit of a rocky start but we really feel it’s important to get this done in a timely fashion if we have that opportunity."
LeMahieu said he hopes to strike a compromise, factoring in the bill the Assembly passed last week. He said the Senate measure includes many of those provisions, and would renew portions of Wisconsin’s existing, but nearly expired, COVID-19 bill. And, he said it also includes eight provisions from Gov. Evers’ draft legislation.
There also are a couple of new measures, including one that would allow essential visitors for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“We felt that was an important thing to have in this bill and the second one, which we also feel is very important, is providing those liability protections for our state’s schools, our state’s churches, nonprofits, small businesses, large businesses,” LeMahieu said.
LeMahieu said those organizations and businesses need to be protected from “frivolous lawsuits” as they attempt to open.
The committee heard from plenty of people pleased with the liability measure, including Christine Hillmer with the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. She said frivolous lawsuits could crush already crippled businesses
“Over 75% of our members are independent restaurants. Regardless of ownership type, all restaurants are the cornerstones of their neighborhoods and communities. We recently surveyed our membership in December, and we heard that 37% of our restaurants are likely to go out of businesses. 46% of those remaining are thinking about closing their doors until the pandemic is over, and I really fear those 46% will not be able to reopen — it’s desperate for restaurants,” said Hillmer.
Not everyone was cheering about the proposed liability measure. Jay Urban with the Wisconsin Association for Justice fears it will result in what he called ‘”bad players” being rewarded.
“All immunity does is shift that loss to say, it’s going to fall on the person that did everything right, as opposed to the person that did something wrong,” he said..
Jamie Pernander of Wisconsin United for Freedom spoke in favor of a provision that would prevent the state from closing places of worship in the name of holding back the spread of the coronavirus.
“In AB1 there is a clause that prohibits the authority of the closure of churches and right now people need hope and that’s what our churches provide. We have taken away their jobs, their businesses, their connection with their loved ones, potentially their ability to refuse or chose a vaccine, and of course the virus has wreaked havoc on many Wisconsin lives, so our places of worship are essential,” said Pernander.
Madison restaurant owner Dave Heide urged the legislators to rethink the proposal. He said it stifles public health and lacks support for people who need it — such as grants for small, struggling businesses.
“The provisions of this bill, including the liability protection, restrictions on public health and local governments and the lack of any additional aid to small businesses doesn’t make sense. COVID has ravaged our state with over 5,000 dead, over a half million with the virus. Engaging in legislative denialism does nothing to help me, my businesses, workers or the community I’m working so hard to try to help,” said Heide.
After the public had had its say, the committee moved straight to a vote — approving the proposal three to two.
LeMahieu has called the Senate into session Tuesday morning to take up the COVID-19 bill, just hours before Gov Evers delivers his state of the state address.
LeMahieu admitted he’s unsure whether Gov. Evers would approve or veto the measure.