The state Senate passed a COVID-19 relief package today. Governor Evers signed the bill into law shortly after its approval on the Senate floor
The fight for a COVID-19 relief bill pitted the governor’s office against state Republicans. Weeks ago, Governor Evers introduced two relief packages to the republican-held assembly, which were not taken up.
Speaking at the Senate’s vote earlier today, Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that Governor Evers’ proposed relief budget – almost one billion dollars – was too much to authorize before federal relief funds were disbursed.
“We did not believe that the state could make that decision, or that the state could afford a billion dollars at the time. Knowing that federal relief was on the way, legislative leadership crafted a bill taking input from the governor, from his bill, from Republican and Democrat legislators,” Fitzgerald said.
In a written statement sent out Wednesday, Evers said, “The bill I will sign falls short of what is needed to address the magnitude and gravity of what our state is facing, but I am not willing to delay our state’s response to this crisis.”
According to the Governor, the bill lacks support for small businesses, first responders and healthcare providers.
Governor Evers’ original bill also would have appropriated 20 million dollars to expand the state’s rural broadband internet access. But the final approved package contains no funding for broadband infrastructure improvements.
According to a 2019 report by the Federal Communications Commission, almost 30% of rural Wisconsinites don’t have access to a stable internet connection.
Matt Sweeney is the Communications Director for the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, which maintains the state’s public utilities, including broadband internet. He says Republican legislators should reconsider their omission of the funding.
“We’re still hopeful that the Republican legislature will see fit to award an additional 20 million dollars for expansion grants. We’re hoping that they’ll reconsider and vote again,” he said.
In an effort to provide stable internet access to students and parents, the Public Service Commission launched an online tracker to find free WiFi networks, which identifies 450 free internet locations throughout the state.
However, nearly all of those locations are public venues such as libraries and schools: all of which are currently closed due to Governor Evers’ stay-at-home orders.
“They have WiFi access that they are making available to their parking lot. So if people need to, they can drive, park their cars and access the WiFi. It’s really kind of a last-ditch effort. We don’t want people to leave their houses, but some people need the internet to access critical services,” said Sweeney.
Ed Snow is an educational consultant with the Department of Public Education, and he’s worked on the department’s WiFi mapping program. He says a lack of basic knowledge on broadband access throughout the state has made planning for public expansion projects difficult.
“There really isn’t any good mapping to tell us who has internet and who doesn’t. The Internet in the United States of America is a privilege, it is not something that is a utility at this point. The biggest hurdle we had was trying to identify who needed help and where,” he said.
Rural and low-income students have been disproportionately affected by internet accessibility issues, according to Snow. Since Governor Evers indefinitely suspended in-person education, schools have moved all operations online.
“From a strictly school lens, it’s important that every child in the state has connectivity. It’s time we sat back and we tried to solve that problem, not just for our state, but for our country. It’s critical to education at this point in time,” he said.
PHOTO: Publicly available WiFi locations during the COVID-19 Pandemic