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Wisconsin Assembly Approves More Changes To COVID-19 Response Bill

GOP Lawmakers, Governor Haven't Yet Found Agreement On Plan

A snowy scene at the Wisconsin State Capitol
Sidewalks are mostly empty around the Wisconsin State Capitol on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Wisconsin state Assembly approved more changes to a COVID-19 response bill on Tuesday, the latest move in a months-long debate over how state government should respond to the pandemic. The future of the bill — and, thereby, the Wisconsin state government response to continued public health and economic effects of the virus — remains uncertain.

The latest changes, which passed the Assembly on a party-line vote of 58-34 with Republicans voting in favor, add Assembly-backed proposals back into a bill that was approved by the state Senate two weeks ago. The Assembly first passed its COVID-19 response plan early this month. The Senate approved a pared-down version of that Assembly plan after talks with Gov. Tony Evers, but the Assembly refused to pass the whittled-down version.

Under the new Assembly proposal advanced on Tuesday, three particularly notable provisions from the initial Assembly bill would be added back into the smaller, Senate-approved bill. Those provisions would:

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  • Bar employers and health officials from requiring people to get COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • Bar local health officers from closing places of worship to curb the spread of the virus.
  • Give the Legislature’s state budget committee oversight of how federal COVID-19 stimulus funds are spent.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was sharply critical of the Senate’s negotiations and pared-down bill, saying Senate Republicans showed they were willing to “cave into the governor’s demands.”

During Tuesday’s debate, Vos called the additions “innocuous” and argued they shouldn’t spur partisan disagreement. He said Assembly Republicans agreed to leave out previous proposals to limit local health officials’ ability to restrict capacity at businesses during the pandemic to 14-day periods, as well as a requirement that school boards have a two-thirds vote to approve virtual schooling every two weeks.

Vos said omitting those things “takes out things that are really important for us … so the public understands where we are,” but he believes it is “past time” for the Legislature to act.

“We wanted to ultimately get a bill that could be signed,” he said.

Evers has the power to veto any piece of legislation passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and called several elements of the initial Assembly-backed plan “poison pills.”

During debate, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, criticized Assembly Republicans for not embracing the Senate’s compromise bill.

“The no. 1 thing we should do is pass the bill that passed the Senate in bipartisan fashion,” Hintz said. “Any action taken today to amend or modify or play games is simply delaying further.”

It has been about nine months since the Legislature and governor were able to agree on a state response to the pandemic. The Legislature passed its first and only COVID-19 response bill, which the governor signed, in April.

The governor’s office and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about the new Assembly plan’s prospects in the Senate or under the governor’s potential veto pen.