Today marked the first time in more than eight months Wisconsin’s lawmakers convened in the state capitol building. The last time they met was for a special hybrid in-person/virtual session in April, to pass an emergency pandemic-response package.
Despite calls from Democrats and Governor Tony Evers for further action on pandemic-relief bills, the state’s Republicans have repeatedly refused to return to Madison.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of West Point, told reporters earlier today that inaction will mean a very busy session for Wisconsin’s lawmakers.
“We have a lot of stuff to do,” Erpenbach said. “And just because there’s a vaccine out there, which is a good thing, there are still things we need to do. And the inaction by the Republican majority over the past couple hundred days leaves us with nothing but a lot of catch-up to do.”
But, a smooth session is unlikely — as Wisconsin’s lawmakers began their annual quarreling before any legislation even hit the floor.
The state’s Republicans, who control both the State Assembly and Senate, have not enacted a mask mandate for the two chambers, sparking criticism and anger from their Democrat colleagues.
In protest of the decision, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that a number of Democratic legislators in both houses skipped today’s inauguration ceremonies for incoming lawmakers.
Now, they’re pushing Republicans to host the session virtually or, at the very least, require masks for lawmakers. Democratic Rep. Gordon Hintz, of Oshkosh, said today that not doing so would be irresponsible.
“We shouldn’t be in the position that we’re in,” Hintz said. “For 2020, we had virtual options for the time we met on the floor. We’re in a much more dangerous and risky position than we were then.”
The dispute comes as U.S. lawmakers at all levels of government have contracted the virus in recent months.
Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore announced on Dec. 28th that she tested positive for COVID-19, although she still traveled to D.C. for yesterday’s House Speaker vote.
COVID-19 also claimed the life of two legislators in the past week alone — state Senator Ben Chafin of Virginia and Louisiana congressman-elect Luke Letlow — both of whom were Republicans.
And the mask debate is just the start of what will likely be a contentious legislative session.
In the coming months, state legislators will draft Wisconsin’s biennial budget — a task that, in any given year, would be challenging. But this year the process will be complicated by financial fallout from the pandemic.
According to the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, the state is currently staring down a $373 million shortfall for the 2021-2023 budget cycle.
Lawmakers will also be redrawing district maps after last year’s census — a process that, last time, Democrats objected to all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Governor Evers, State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and newly-minted Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu are still haggling over a new COVID-19 response bill. Last month, Governor Evers introduced what he called a ‘compromise bill’ that incorporates key requests from both sides.
Earlier this morning, Evers sent an open letter to the State Legislature asking them to make passing the ‘compromise bill’ their first order of business during the upcoming session. Evers, Vos and LeMahieu have spent the past several weeks negotiating the details of the $100 million package — which is a sharp markdown from Evers’ initial proposal, which would have cost the state more than half a billion dollars.
Last month, in response to Governor Evers’ proposal, LeMahieu wrote that “Governor Evers cherry-picked various proposals from the negotiations and then released them to the media. This is not a compromise and it is not leadership.”
Now, Republicans have unveiled a new COVID-19 response package. The Associated Press reports that the Assembly Speaker plans to push the package through a vote by the end of the week.
“The proposal we are introducing today has over 44 provisions to help fight the virus and reopen our economy and our schools,” Vos told the Assembly.
Those provisions would, among other things, prohibit mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, limit school boards’ authority in moving classes online and set a maximum length of two weeks for business closures.
(PHOTO: WORT News / Brian Standing)