By Shawn Pfaff

Assembly Passes COVID bill; Senate Raises Concerns while Governor threatens Veto

This week, the Republican-controlled state Assembly introduced a comprehensive COVID relief package for the state (AB 1). The massive bill includes more than forty components and $100 million to address the impacts of COVID across the state. The Assembly Health Committee passed the bill by a partisan 11 to 5 margin on Tuesday, and it passed the full Assembly on a 56 to 34 partisan vote on Thursday.

The future of AB 1 is uncertain however. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Ootsburg) has not given support for the proposal, and Governor Evers has said that he veto the bill if it were to reach his desk. Both have raised concerns with several provisions of the bill – though their concerns are not similar.

Assembly Bill 1 includes the following provisions:

·       Medical Assistance payments for hospitals for nursing facility care

·       Reimbursement for outpatient services provided by hospitals

·       Coverage of vaccinations under SeniorCare

·       Medical Assistance reimbursement for COVID-19 vaccines and tests administered by pharmacists

·       Local health officer orders in response to communicable disease outbreak

·       Authority to forbid public gatherings in places of worship

·       Prohibiting mandatory vaccination against SARS-CoV-2

·       Prohibiting vaccination against SARS-CoV2 as condition of employment

·       Collection and reporting of public health emergency data

·       Civil Liability exemption for certain entities relating to COVID-19 claims

·       Full-time open enrollment; applications for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years

·       School board reports on virtual instruction provided during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years

·       School board requirements for virtual instruction

·       Interscholastic athletic association; transfer rules in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years

·       Interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities; virtual charter school pupils

·       Unemployment insurance; plan to address claims backlog

·       Unemployment insurance; work-share programs

·       Unemployment insurance; waiting periods

·       Unemployment insurance; benefit charging

·       Legislative oversight of federal COVID-19 funds

·       Plan to reopen state capitol and for state employees to return to in-person employment

·       Cremation permits and electronic signature of death certificates

·       Death of an inmate

·       Child Care and Development Fund block grant funding

·       Nursing home or assisted living facility visitation by essential visitors

·       Hospital services provided in a home setting

·       Prescription order extensions

·       Practice of emergency medical services personnel and providers with credentials from outside the state

·       Liability insurance for physicians and nurse anesthetists

·       Out-of-network costs related to health coverage

·       Coverage of COVID-19 testing and vaccination without cost sharing

·       Coverage limits on certain prescription drugs

·       Transfer of moneys from sum sufficient appropriations up to $100 million.

·       Loans to assist municipal utilities in maintaining liquidity

·       WRS annuities for certain annuitants returning to work during national emergency

·       Occupancy permit when dwelling occupied before inspection

·       Practice by health care providers from other states

·       Authorizing first- and second-year pharmacy students to administer vaccines

·       Authorizing dentists to administer COVID-19 and flu vaccines

·       Optional registration of third-party logistics providers

·       Extension of term or duration of certain approvals

·       Interest and penalties on late property tax payments

·       Claims to recover property taxes

·       Utilization data in the Medical Assistance program

To read more about AB 1, please click on the links below:

Assembly Republicans pass likely doomed COVID-19 relief package | Local Government | madison.com

2021 Assembly Bill 1 (wisconsin.gov)

Senate Majority Leader Discusses 2021-22 Legislative Priorities

In an interview with The Wheeler Report this week, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Ootsburg) said he is excited for the next session and looks forward to getting to work. LeMahieu emphasized that being majority leader was about doing the ‘will of the caucus.’ He described how his position is about helping guide the caucus and build consensus. He was quick to say it is not about his priorities, “it’s me being the person pushing the priorities of our caucus.”  

LeMahieu was asked, “Speaker Vos said on the floor, and again in interviews yesterday, that you already have an agreement on that bill [COVID] and you guys are ready to go. Is that not the case?” LeMahieu replied, “That is not the case. There is a reason that was an Assembly bill and not a Senate bill.”  

In any given session, one of the biggest issues to address is often the state budget, so LeMahieu was asked what the most difficult parts of the 2021-23 budget would be. He said the hardest part was going to be where the revenue is, highlighting that the pandemic has impacted the state budget and until it is clearer what the revenues looks like it is going to be a challenge. “I’m guessing the governor is going to want to raise taxes and want to increase spending substantially, but we’re going to be working towards continuing on what we’ve done for the last decade and being responsible, having a balanced budget, and holding the line on taxes.”  

LeMahieu said he has been working with the new co-chair of Finance, Sen. Marklein and that Marklein is already meeting with the new JFC team and assigning issue areas. He emphasized that his members are already “digging into” different agencies and department budgets looking for ways to potentially save money. He said, “I’m happy that our new finance team is gung-ho and getting ready already to start doing preliminary work even on day three of the session. I look forward to vigorous discussion on how we can find savings, maybe combine services, and do things like that to provide savings. Yet still investing in core priorities like transportation, education, health and services like that.” 

LeMahieu began his discussion about education by highlighting investments made in both special education and K-12 in the past few budgets, but quickly turned his attention to the impact the pandemic has had on schools and education as a whole. He offered, “Schools have been taxed with the pandemic and they are trying to find a way to operate during the pandemic which has caused new challenges for school districts. Fortunately, a lot of these smaller school districts across the state were in-person, but it’s unfortunate that some of the larger school districts have gone to total virtual…We’ve heard from our constituents who have concerns ‘how do we go to work’ and ‘I don’t have proper training to teach my kids at home’ so we need to do everything in our power to make sure that schools, all schools, open and if they’re not that parents have opportunities to get their kids in a school that is open so that we don’t lose a year or two years of education and put those kids behind.”  When asked to clarify what he meant by opportunities, LeMahieu said there needs to be open enrollment opportunities, and school choice options. He said parents need to have all options to get their kids into a “framework that works best for them.”  

When the pandemic struck in the spring and schools were closed one of the major issues facing many schools in virtual instruction was lack of internet access. LeMahieu said, “We made great strides in broadband funding, especially in the last budget, but I’ve been hearing some concerns that some of the grants, especially in the application process, some have been delivered for improving speeds in areas rather than reaching that last mile. We might have to look at how the PSC awards those grants.” LeMahieu elaborated by saying he wants to ensure there is an emphasis on getting access to everyone versus increasing speeds for people who already have access.  

When specifically asked about the impact that broadband access has on businesses and development outside major Wisconsin cities, LeMahieu said, “The pandemic sort of made a paradigm shift on how some businesses operate. People realize that some jobs you can work virtually and be very effective. So there has been a shift of people who are like, well if I can do my job at home, why don’t I live up north and enjoy this beautiful state that we have. The shortcoming is if there is not broadband.”  

In several of the past budgets the Department of Corrections has requested maintenance and building for several state prisons. In a renewed call this session, Rep. David Steffen has asked that the prison in Green Bay be decommissioned, although the prison is not the oldest or in need of the most maintenance according to records.  When asked about the prisons, LeMahieu said, “I think there are some interesting ideas up for the Green Bay prison. I think there are some interesting proposals, primarily in the last session, and we need to keep looking at out of the box solutions.”

The Dark Stores issue has been introduced over several sessions, and when asked about the issue LeMahieu said, “That might be a tough ask in this economic environment. The pandemic has been tough on main street businesses with people starting to order more online through Amazon or whatever. That issue has been pretty quiet from the local governments. I haven’t head much about it in the last year since the pandemic. I think they are realizing that businesses are really struggling. We need to make sure that we’re not increasing their taxes at this time because very soon there might not be any businesses around.”  

Another issue which did not come to a finalized answer was the pharmacy benefit manager.  LeMahieu said, “I think that’s a bill that we can get done early on in the session…I think all sides came together at the end of last session and it probably would have been taken up. I think it was scheduled to be taken up and the pandemic hit. So, I think if the compromise bill that ended the session comes forward early this session, I think we can get that done.”  

LeMahieu was asked for specifics about election law reforms. He said, “I think our state laws are actually pretty clear. Unfortunately, the Elections Commission doesn’t agree with me, and sometimes gives advice that is contrary to what state law actually says. So, I think the first area we need to look at is the Elections Commission and how guidance becomes the standard across the state of Wisconsin. There are areas where we can maybe clarify state law and show the intent of the legislature as well…A couple of members of my caucus are working on that and hopefully we can get some good bills done and put them on the Governor’s desk.”  

The U.S. Census numbers are due to the states in 2021, and the next redistricting process will begin once the numbers are determined. When asked about the redistricting timeline, LeMahieu said, “We are not exactly sure when we’re going to get the census data. If we get it in March or April, which is when hopefully we should get it, I think it will be a pretty quick process. Hopefully, we’ll get it done by July 1st.”  

Prior to the pandemic, institutions of higher education started seeing declining enrollment mostly due to demographic shifts. Additionally, online instruction and virtual programs were becoming more main stream. LeMahieu was asked to comment on the higher education going forward. He said, “I think we’re gonna have to take a fresh look at both higher education and K-12 education funding. If there is a move towards virtual, what does that look like? Does it cost as much to educate someone? Do they need as much state funding? Things like that. So, I mean, obviously they won’t need as many buildings if the UW System has half their enrollment online. But there are some fields where you need to be there in person. You can’t do labs on your living room couch.”  

One provision in the Assembly COVID proposal is to require the Governor to have an implementation plan for bringing state employees back to work. LeMahieu was asked about state employees working virtually, he said, “That’s similar to the UW discussion. Do we need all these state buildings? Should we start selling them? Should we start leasing them out? What is the process going to look like? I think, as the legislature, if there is going to be more virtual options we need to make sure that there are some sort of metric or something in place to make sure that we’re getting productive employment. I’m sure any private business that has a lot of their staff working virtually has standards…So if certain agencies are going to be more virtual, we need to make sure they’re still providing that service to the state to make sure that they’re still getting things done.”  

Both houses passed a resolution on Monday to require the Governor and DOA to open the capitol to the public. LeMahieu was asked how a compromise could be reached when many have concerns about safety. LeMahieu said, “I think we can do it safely. Businesses, organizations, non-profits, and employers all across the state have had nine months of successfully opening up their places of employment or worship…implementing their own CDC guidelines, social distancing, things like that. This is the people’s house, we’re back in session, we need to get this building opened back up. You still have control over your senate office. If a senator doesn’t feel comfortable having meetings or having constituents in their office, they have that right in their office…I want to have my office open. I want to be able to meet with people who have concerns. Some of that can be done virtually, but I think it’s always better if you can meet face to face with someone and have that discussion.”  

LeMahieu ended the interview by saying, “I’m just excited to get the session started. It’s great to be back here. It’s great to be talking with my colleagues, getting back to work. We’re excited about a new session and look forward to getting going.”

To read more about GOP Senate Leader LeMahieu, please click on the link below:

Senator Devin LeMahieu (wisconsin.gov)

Committee Hearings Next Week

As of this writing, there are currently no hearings scheduled for next week.