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Wisconsin Senate Passes Scaled-Back COVID-19 Package

Legislation Removes Some Items In GOP Assembly Plan Spurned By Evers

Wisconsin state capitol
A file photo of the state Capitol Building’s rotunda. Joseph (CC-BY-NC-SA)

The Republican-controlled state Senate has passed a COVID-19 bill that has the backing of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — but not top GOP leaders in the state Assembly.

The Senate approved an amendment to the bill Tuesday that passed the chamber on a 29-2 vote before concurring in the overall bill on a voice vote.

Much of the legislation includes proposals negotiated with Evers, including a provision requiring health insurers to cover COVID-19 prescriptions, testing and vaccines.

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But other, more controversial elements of a bill that passed the Assembly were removed from the plan. They include potential punishments for schools that don’t return to in-person instruction, restrictions on local public health officers and a ban on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines.

The measure that passed the Senate still included new restrictions on COVID-19 lawsuits, a priority of Republicans and Wisconsin’s business lobby. But that measure was scaled back enough Tuesday to win Evers’ support.

“This is the unified governance our state needs right now,” said a written statement attributed to members of the state Senate’s Republican caucus.” It’s refreshing to start off the year and legislative session with a comprehensive, bipartisan plan we can confidently share with constituents as we continue to combat COVID-19 and safely re-open our state.”

Evers issued his own statement praising new Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, who assumed the new leadership position after former Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was elected to Congress.

“I’ve been grateful to work together with Republican Majority Leader LeMahieu to find common ground and pass a bill on COVID-19 that reflects a good faith effort in compromise and bipartisanship,” said Evers. “Although it’s not the COVID compromise we originally proposed, AB 1 as amended by the Senate is a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic.”

Voting against the COVID-19 amendment were state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, one of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives, and Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, one of its most outspoken liberals.

Despite the broad bipartisan vote in the Senate, early signs suggested the plan wouldn’t pass easily in the Assembly.

While Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t respond to a request seeking comment on the bill, two top Vos allies indicated they opposed it. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna and state Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, each issued statements saying they were disappointed with the Senate’s bill.

“Instead of listening to our hard-working families, the Senate approved a bill that fails to provide protections for places of worship,” read Steineke’s statement. “It fails to allow those who want to opt out of the COVID vaccine to do so. And finally, it fails to prevent local health officers from shutting down local businesses on a whim without approval from elected officials.”

While the Assembly passed its version of a COVID-19 bill Thursday, it has been about nine months since the full Legislature and the governor were able to agree on a bill to guide the state through the pandemic.