Picture by SBJ04769 on Unsplash.
“Do not close out of your system, do not close your laptop, don’t touch anything.”
That’s the sound of the Wisconsin Assembly convening virtually to pass a COVID-19 relief bill today. The bill aims to address the pandemic’s impact on education, agriculture, and many other aspects of Wisconsin’s economy.
Last month, Governor Tony Evers issued a stay-at-home order for Wisconsin’s residents in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He has also ordered the closure of non-essential businesses and even some state parks. Many schools are not meeting in person and many workers have lost their jobs. According to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the pandemic’s effect on employment is almost unprecedented.
“And we know that our unemployment rate, just announced recently, upwards of 20%,” said Vos. “Nationally, they’re predicting a 25% unemployment rate, rivaling that of the Great Depression. So many of us lived through the great recession, and thought that would probably be one of the worst times of our lives, and here we are, going through something that’s worse.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate at the height of the 2008 recession was less than half of what it is right now. Last week alone, over 65,000 Wisconsinites filed for unemployment. That’s compared to just over 4,600 last year during the same week in April.
The bill allows the state government to transfer up to $75 million from other programs towards pandemic-related expenses. It requires health insurance to cover the costs of COVID-19 tests, prohibits sellers from accepting products such as food or toilet paper if buyers try to return them, and lowers the number of training hours required to become a nurse aide. It also allows state agencies to waive a requirement that someone should appear in person if the agency believes that would put them at risk. The bill covers many other issues, but according to Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, a Democrat from Oshkosh, they still need to do more work.
“There’s been some breaking down of some of the barriers that have slowed our progress, but refuse to admit this is all we can do as a state, and there’s so much more we need to be doing,” said Hintz. “The uncertainty… There are things happening now that we couldn’t think of a month ago. The governor, if he was going to do a proposal today it would probably be different from what it was a month ago. And when we look at what the beginning of May looks like, when the emergency orders run out, we don’t know what’s going to be happening either. So it’s impossible to act today and say this is the last day and we’re addressing any potential challenge we know because we don’t know what those are. And so I think with that kind of uncertainty we need to stand ready to go, and this can’t be our last day on the floor to deal with this crisis. Even if it’s only this crisis.”
There are currently over 3,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. That’s more than double the amount at the beginning of April.
The bill also makes charities, manufacturers and distributors immune to lawsuits if the emergency medical supplies they distribute or sell kill or injure another person.
When asked by W-O-R-T yesterday whether medical supplies manufactured for the crisis would be safe, Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer, said the state is says they are working to ensure the equipment they buy is safe.
“There are, you know, people who are selling fraudulent face masks, so that is something we’re being very careful about when we’re making these purchases,” said Westergaard. “We’re making sure that we’re protecting Wisconsin taxpayers and more important, before distributing we’re making sure that the equipment is what it says.”
Five days ago, state Democrats objected to a provision in an earlier draft that would have given the Republican-controlled budget committee the ability to cut state spending without the governor’s agreement. That provision is now gone, and all but two Democrats voted in favor of today’s bill. Representative Hintz said that though there were some things in the bill he did not agree with, the situation requires swift action.
“I know there are some things included in there that I was happy to see, but I know some of you were perhaps squirmish on and, obviously, there are things we don’t like,” said Hintz. “But I understand that I came here today not to look for reasons to vote against something, but to try to get behind something that demonstrates that we need to act, we can act, that does at least what we have to do right now, and that also encourages us to follow my words about being willing to come back. I would say this: The speaker and I have not always gotten along, and my discussion here is that it was a different discussion. I think it was a recognition that the moment we’re in is different and that the politics need to be different as well.”
The bill now heads to the state senate, which is expected to take up the bill tomorrow.
Reporting for WORT News, I’m Martin Rakacolli.