By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly overwhelmingly approved a sweeping coronavirus relief bill Tuesday during a virtual session, the first time state lawmakers have gathered since the pandemic began in the United States.
The session took place in the Assembly chamber as usual, but because of concerns about spreading the virus, nearly two-thirds of the body’s 99 members attended using a videoconference. The Senate was to hold a similar session on Wednesday to send the bill on to Gov. Tony Evers.
It marked the first time in Wisconsin’s 172-year history that lawmakers convened a session with members participating remotely. Legislative rules require lawmakers to be present to debate and vote on bills, but a 2009 law allows for virtual sessions during disasters.
One section of the Assembly gallery was open to the public. Only 14 seats were open and each was about 6 feet apart from the others. Public seating, also 6 feet apart, was on offer in the Capitol rotunda. Two large TV screens, tuned to Skype, were set up on the Assembly chamber floor. About 35 members sat in the chamber, all spaced several seats apart. Many rows were empty. Several pages wore face masks, as did Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz. He was the only Democrat on the floor.
The session got off to a slow start as Chief Clerk Pat Fuller tried to call the roll. Lawmakers joined from their kitchens, Capitol offices and home offices and struggled to unmute themselves and register their attendance before Fuller moved on to the next legislator. Some seemed amused at the setup, smiling and waving to the camera. Others initially appeared befuddled, apparently unable to hear or to figure out how to be heard. Roll call votes took minutes as Fuller asked each lawmaker individually for his or her vote. Normally, voting is almost instantaneous as lawmakers signal their votes from their seats with the touch of a button.
Moments before adjourning for a 10-minute receess, Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August warned lawmakers not to touch their laptops during the break because if they disconnected themselves they wouldn’t be able to log back in. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the few legislators on the floor, said setting up the virtual session was “extremely challenging” and he hoped the Assembly would never have to meet that way again.
The process became smoother as the session progressed. The chamber ended up approving the bill 97-2.
The legislation largely ensures that Wisconsin can capture the $2.3 billion coming to the state under the federal stimulus bill, including higher Medicaid payments and unemployment benefits. The Legislature’s budget committee would be allowed to allocate up to $75 million in funding during the public health emergency and up to 90 days after it ends.
The proposal would also waive the state’s one-week waiting period to receive unemployment for anyone who applies between March and Feb. 7, 2021; ban certain insurers from prohibiting coverage in response to a COVID-19 diagnosis; ease licensing and credentialing for health care workers; reduce nurse training hour requirements; and render health providers immune from civil liability for services provided during the pandemic. Local municipalities also could choose to defer their residents’ property tax payments.
Evers’ administration has been working closely with Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald on the bill. The governor did not say Monday whether he supported the legislation, saying he had not reviewed it, but he hoped it wouldn’t be the last action taken by the Legislature to offer aid during the pandemic.
Nineteen states had allocated more than $3 billion to respond to the pandemic by Friday, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
By Tuesday, COVID-19 had killed 170 people in Wisconsin and infected more than 3,500. Among those who contracted the virus and recovered is Democratic state Rep. David Bowen, of Milwaukee.
Vos and Hintz were the only lawmakers who spoke about the bill prior to the vote. Hintz said the Legislature should be prepared to return to work on further legislation that helps Evers deal with the pandemic.
“We should make sure we are listening, enabling and supporting and giving (the Evers administration) the flexibility to manage this crisis,” he said. “I refuse to admit this is all we can do as a state.”
But Vos cautioned against giving Evers “blank checks” as the virus wreaks “economic carnage” on the state’s finances. He said he was disappointed the bill didn’t freeze state spending in fiscal year 2020-21 and lamented that state workers will still get an automatic 2% raise.
“We have to be just like a family were the credit card use is limited,” Vos said. “Think before we spend. Make investments that are wise but not wanting.”