Republicans who lead the Legislature's two health committees offered differing views on how Wisconsin should proceed with any future COVID-19 relief legislation — adding to the uncertainty over if and when another package might be sent to Gov. Tony Evers, who swiftly vetoed a GOP-authored bill on Friday, Feb. 5.
During a Wisconsin Health News webinar Tuesday, Feb. 9, Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, chair of the Senate Health Committee, said he was disappointed in Evers' veto of coronavirus-related legislation last week. He added that most measures in the bill were agreed to by both the Democratic governor and Senate, but acknowledged some GOP additions may have given Evers "a little too much heartburn."
Testin said he hasn't spoken with the Senate Republican caucus yet but said he is hopeful the chamber can introduce legislation soon that might return to the Senate's compromise package, which Evers has supported. He added that another option might be to propose individual bills or a smaller COVID-19 package to get measures passed.
"Those conversations will continue, and hopefully we can get something to his desk sooner rather than later," Testin said.
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Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, defended proposals added by Assembly Republicans, including measures aimed at reopening schools, prohibiting local health officials from closing churches or places of worship and allowing visitors in nursing homes.
He added he was not interested in removing items from the package Evers vetoed.
"To start cherry-picking or start pulling things out that the governor already said he's opposed to is just a sure way to see those things die, so to that extent, no, I don't think they should be pulled out," he said.
The package vetoed by Evers on Friday was the first coronavirus-related measure to reach his desk since April.
During a media call with reporters Tuesday, Evers said he has not personally spoken with any legislative leaders since his veto Friday, but said he hopes the Legislature can send him the Senate-approved package soon.
"The best type of legislation is legislation that all parties agree to and we know what that is," Evers said. "I'm hopeful the Legislature will take another crack at this in the near future and we'll find a bill on my desk that reflects what we had agreed to in the past."
The Senate package approved in January included coronavirus liability protections for businesses and schools and $100 million in spending capacity on coronavirus-related expenses for the GOP-controlled budget committee, among other measures.
However, Republicans eventually added items to the bill that Evers has opposed, including measures to limit the governor's use of emergency orders and give Republicans in the Legislature authority over how to spend all future federal COVID-19 dollars that the state receives.
In addition to legislation, Republicans and Evers have continued to battle over COVID-19 preventative measures since early in the pandemic. In March, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with Republicans to strike down the governor's stay-at-home order.
Last week, Republicans in both chambers passed a joint resolution to eliminate Evers' emergency order and accompanying statewide mask mandate. Moments after the resolution passed, Evers issued a new order and mask rule.
Republicans have said the effort to eliminate the governor's emergency order has nothing to do with masks, but rather that Evers has overstepped his powers by issuing repeated emergency orders. Evers says those measures are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the dispute.
Nearly 60 organizations registered in opposition to the Legislature's effort to eliminate the emergency order, primarily in an effort to support the accompanying mask mandate. No groups supported the measure.
Asked if he spoke with any health care groups about eliminating the mask rule, Sanfelippo said he is in contact "with every major health organization on a weekly if not daily basis."
"But we can't let the end justify the means," he added. "If we're going to let a governor go rogue and ignore the Legislature, you basically have a constitutional crisis here."
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, a member of the Senate Health Committee, and Rep. Sara Rodriguez, D-Brookfield, a member of the Assembly Health Committee, also participated in the webinar. Both spoke to a Democratic bill unveiled last week that would put a statewide mask order in place until the federal COVID-19 national emergency concludes.
"If this is not about masks, which I do believe it is about masks and getting rid of the statewide mask mandate, then that is legislation that we should take up," Rodriguez said.
Both Testin and Sanfelippo said they are opposed to a statewide mask rule and the bill could face an uphill battle in the GOP-led chambers. While state Republicans have repeatedly said that eliminating Evers' emergency order has nothing to do with face coverings, they also have not introduced mask legislation.
Assembly Republicans last week asked Evers to submit limited mask requirements to the state's joint rules committee for approval, but Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, one of the committee's co-chairmen, said he would not consider any such rules.
"Not one single Republican has signed onto it yet," Erpenbach said of the Democrat bill. "So it really is about the masks as far as I'm concerned."
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